Synanon, also known as The Church of Synanon was a cult started by Charles “Chuck” Dederich in 1958 when he developed the belief that Alcoholics Anonymous wasn’t able to adequately treat those addicted to drugs. Chuck had attended Alcoholics Anonymous daily for a period of time, but as he became more popular in A.A. circles, became openly critical of the spiritual nature of the meetings and fellowship and felt that a more psychoanalytical approach…one of his own imagination. Dederich began to hold meetings outside of Alcoholics Anonymous and soon went from living on a $35 unemployment check and food donations, holding meetings in various members’ apartments to renting a storefront they named “The Tender Loving Care Club”, What took place during the group meetings held at the club was not tender, nor loving, Dederich seemed to take the “truth-telling” of Alcoholics Anonymous’ “Fifth Step” to a new level. A.A.’s “Fifth Step” reads: We admitted to God, to ourselves and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs”. Dederich called these group sessions “The Game”, which consists of a rigorous truth-telling by members, a confessional of sorts, of perceived personal bad deeds big and small. The next step in “The Game” was later coined “confrontation therapy” and was members of the group confronting each other about what they had shared in their confessions of guilt or other behaviors that members of the group found unacceptable. This was most often loud, lots of yelling which Synanon called “a haircut”, and the kicker is that the “indictment” as they called it, didn’t even have to be factual. The only rule of engagement was that there was no physical violence allowed in the circle. There was no restriction on the language or terminology used to confront others in the group and one of the main therapeutic “tools” that participants were expected to use was “ridicule”. Verbal abuse and humiliation were an expectation of group participants. Chuck Dederich often referred to members of his group as “dope fiends” and warned that if they didn’t continue to participate in the therapy offered in the group, that’s all they would ever be.
The Church of Synanon, as it was called after it gained non-profit status from the IRS, developed into a live-in community for addicts who wanted to get and stay clean. The cult consisted of men, women and children. But the children were no longer raised by their individual parents, instead in what they called “The Hatchery” by other cult members assigned to their care. The women and men both were forced to shave their heads to strip them of autonomy, in what Dederich saw as an attempt to lessen the ego. Eventually, Dederich banned childbirth within the cult and began ordering forced vasectomies on the men and abortions for any of the women who became pregnant within the cult.
In 1978, several members of Synanon were indicted in the attempted murder of attorney Paul Morantz, who represented a woman who said that she had been abducted and held captive by members of Synanon. She alleged that they shaved her head and wouldn’t allow her to leave until finally her husband and Mr. Morantz secured her release nine days later. The woman sued Synanon for damages and won. Paul Morantz was later bitten by a rattlesnake placed in his mailbox by members of Synanon’s “Imperial Marines” at the behest of Chuck Dederich.
The Phoenix Arises
In 1965, a psychiatrist named Mitchell Rosenthal was working for the United States Navy in Oakland to rehabilitate officers with addiction problems. Many of these officers were coming back from the Vietnam War. One day, two members of The Church of Synanon in San Francisco were speakers at a grand rounds at the Naval Hospital where Dr. Rosenthal was treating patients and he was impressed enough with their presentation to request within a couple of days to visit the Synanon facility. When Dr. Rosenthal met the head of the facility, he was asked to evaluate and treat the children inside the cult for their behavioral issues and in exchange, members of Synanon would assist Dr. Rosenthal in treating patients at the Naval Hospital. In the actual Navy. These were individuals lacking in any credentialing or formal training aside from Chuck Dederich’s cult indoctrination and programming. Dr. Rosenthal also engaged for a year or so in The Church of Synanon’s sessions of “The Game” on nights and weekends as a participant.
Mitchell Rosenthal was soon after hired by the First Commissioner of the Office of the Coordinator of Addiction Programs, Efrén Ramirez, to serve as Deputy Commissioner for Rehabilitation to Office of the Coordinator of Addiction Programs (OCAP) in New York. While in this role, Dr. Rosenthal and by his retelling, some of the guys he knew from Synanon and from the Naval Hospital came to help start Phoenix House. Daytop was an existing program with a similar cult-based therapeutic approach at that time, also started by a “graduate” of The Church of Synanon. These programs were initially funded by the all staff and patients applying for welfare and pooling their money. Even at this point in the history of “therapeutic communities”, many Phoenix House staff were on the New York City Addiction Services Agency payroll and they signed that over to Phoenix House directly.
Reports by the New York Controller regarding Phoenix House’s misuse of State funding date back to 1970, when New York City Controller Abraham Beanie sent a 165-page report to the NY State Attorney’s Office stating that there was not a clear separation between the City of New York and the Phoenix House entity, and that Phoenix House often had City employees working in their facilities and that many of their supplies and bills were paid by the City directly. There was also questioning along the way in this and other media reporting of why Phoenix House seemed to focus largely on recruitment from other states
and the fact that both the in-state and out-of-state residents would be required to apply for welfare and food stamp benefits. Today, we refer to this practice as a criminal activity called “body brokering” in the recovery and treatment industry.
A New York Times article dated September 1973 with the headline “Abuse is Charged at Phoenix House” read, in part,
“Sanford D. Garelik, president of the City Council, charged yesterday that Phoenix House, a program to fight drug addiction, had been recruiting addicts from outside the state for treatment here and had been getting them on welfare.
Phoenix House runs a drugfree program, unlike some others that provide methadone. It receives city and state as well as private funds. According to one of Mr. Garelik’s investigators, the recruiters of the addicts are also paid by the city.”
Trafficking and body/benefits/patient brokering is incredibly rampant in the substance use and mental health treatment industry.
By 1971, Phoenix House had more than a dozen adult facilities in the United States. The first adolescent Phoenix House facility, called Phoenix Academy, opened in 1983 in San Fernando Valley, California and another in Venice Beach in 1986. Phoenix Academy in Descanso, California, a rural, mountainous area of San Diego County, opened to adolescents, ages 13 to 18.
In 2013, New York State Controller Thomas DiNapoli announced that it was discovered that Phoenix Houses of New York misappropriated $223,00 in state funds. The findings in DiNapoli’s report to the State Attorney’s office included that from 2009 to 2010, the not-for-profit substance use treatment program spent $91,000 on executive bonuses and $40,000 in fringe benefits such as leases on personal vehicles, and when former Executive Director, Finn Kavanaugh left the organization, State funds were used to provide him with a $40,000 “separation agreement”. One of Phoenix House’s non-executive employees used nearly $4,000 to purchase store gift cards with which he purchased cigarettes and alcohol.
In 2019, DiNapoli, again, reported that in an audit of their financial activity between 2013 and 2016, Phoenix House of New York received almost $4 million in state funds that were acquired through processing of invalid claims. From NY Controller DiNapoli’s official press release on January 14, 2019:
In addition, PHNY received reimbursement from OASAS for expenses deemed to be ineligible under the contract.
Equipment and property depreciation of about $700,000; Unsupported employee salaries and raises totaling about $500,000; Fundraising costs of about $400,000; More than $200,000 paid to the foundation’s public policy office and outside lobbyists; and Entertainment and party expenses of about $12,700.
When I came across all of this information, I didn’t understand how a business that so clearly has been in violation and under investigation for abuse and financial embezzlement, among other things has stayed in business so long until I did some research and found that quite often, leading executives and directors of Phoenix House such as have served on governmental bodies, particularly on task forces and boards of
New York City and State. What was even more disheartening was discovering that both Beyonce and Derek Jeter have contributed large amounts of money to Phoenix House although they have been under investigation for years for major abuse allegations and financial fraud.
Phoenix House was one of the first the first treatment programs to become a sentencing alternative to prison incarceration, which has led to a slew of cases by prisoners of violation of their civil rights for various reasons.
In 1992, I was a depressed 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 had been sexually assaulted and was exhausted and I 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. Dirt everywhere. 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 the practice in dissociation that I would need to survive the next eighteen months 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 reality 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 Ronald, 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.
One of the “Basic Concepts” at Phoenix House was “Blind Faith”. This really meant that we weren’t to question the authority of completely unqualified, unlicensed counselors. We weren’t to question the daily traumas, abuses, manipulations and neglect.
The definition in the Phoenix House handbook of “Blind Faith”: Putting your feelings aside and trusting from your head what people tell you about yourself and what to do is completely for your benefit.”
I can hardly breathe when I think of how toxic that statement and mentality is. And it skates the line of being how recovery works best…with outside feedback…but we were expected to deny having any instincts, original thoughts or intuition on our own. The idea was that our peers and staff were the only people we ever needed to interact with, listen to, and who would be there for us always…if we had blind faith.
“Blind faith” is how every cult grooms and programs. If you look at other “self-help” coercive control or high control groups, that’s a common theme. Keith Raniere (NXIVM) used a similar tactic of convincing followers that if they had any doubts, negative thoughts or feelings about the program, the weakness is theirs, that they obviously have some shit to work out because they *must* be wrong. This is a classic method and it WORKS! It especially worked on adolescents who ended up at Phoenix House, many of whom had never had anyone in life that they could trust or have faith in. Being convinced that we finally did was a relief. And the beginning of a lifelong nightmare.
When I arrived at Phoenix House, there was a female resident there who had been there for probably a year already and was still in the second of three phases possible in the program before you graduated the inpatient portion of the program. Michelle was sweet and shy, and seemed to have some level of cognitive and social delay. She was child-like in many ways and seemed to be overly-trusting of new people as she followed me around like a puppy and just seemed happy to be able to be near any group of the girls socializing. During almost every one of the “Full House Meeting Guilt Sessions” which meant that every resident, male and female, and as many staff members as they could have present at one time, was in attendance, any number of the male residents would confess to having coerced Michelle into any manner of sexual activity, from oral sex to penetrative sex. She was also required to stand and admit this in front of the group. It was clear to me that she was being taken advantage of and did not seem developmentally capable of true consent. After the Guilt Sessions, we would break out into the encounter groups during which Michelle would also frequently have “The Game” turned on her for her role in these sexual encounters, which was truly heartbreaking because I knew that she didn’t truly understand that she was being raped. She was being convinced over and over that she was “bad” and that she had an equal role in what were clearly sexual assaults, and in many instances was being blamed for the entire encounter, as her male and female peers yelled things at her like “you have a need of attention!” and “stop bringing Mark down!”.
During my time at Phoenix House, I had a psychologist that I had session with once a week. Her name was Anna. She carried herself in a way that I admired. She was in her 50s, always had a smile on her face, but not in a way that seemed disingenuous, had a warm presence and a calm, soothing voice, but a raucous laugh that made me laugh just hearing it. The hour or so that I spent with her every week felt like such a reprieve from the misery of my day-to-day life in the program. She was not like the rest of the staff. She never yelled, belittled or called me or any of the other teen girls names; never loudly accused us in front of the entire group of trying to seduce and corrupt the boys because our chair was, in their view, a little too close to theirs during group or in the classroom or if your shirt came up a little in the back while you were covered in dirt digging posts for new fencing. Anna taught me how to drive a stick shift because my mother had given me a 1979 diesel VW rabbit when I reached the phase of the program when I was 18 and allowed to start working a part time job outside and down the mountain. I had never driven a five- speed before. When she could get staff permission,
Anna would take me out into the hundreds of acres surrounding the facility and she never even snapped at me or betrayed any type of annoyance that over and over, I kept stalling and sometimes flooding this car. She would take me by the country store for a Peach Snapple before taking me back to the facility.
I trusted Anna, more than I had trusted anyone my whole life at this point and she never pressed too hard for my deepest, darkest secrets, but she did guide conversations in a way that inspired me to disclose them. I shared with Anna something I had never told anyone, ever, which was that stepdad #2, who my mother was married to from the time I was 5 until I was 14, and who had brutally physically and emotionally abused me my entire childhood, had also sexually abused me on a couple of occasions that I could remember. She knew that for more than one reason, I did not want to tell my mother, ever, even though they had been divorced for a couple of years at this point. I also didn’t want to share this deeply personal information with my peers in the program.
The first betrayal of this trust was during what they call in these programs a “marathon”, which is almost like a regressive therapy which is meant to deep dive into your past and hit at those deep, dark issues that you’ve confided in peer or staff, including, apparently, your psychiatrist. This took place maybe twice a year, if that, and past participants are sworn to secrecy…and it’s well-kept. There are usually only a fraction of the residents in any given marathon session. I’m guessing we had maybe 15 out of 42+ of our population, most in a similar stage in our stay there. We walked into the school house after being blindfolded on the way there and led by staff and prior residents who were still in the “live-out” stage who came back up the mountain to assist with the process. The windows in the school were covered so you couldn’t tell what time of day it was or how long you were there. We had one of the guilt sessions I previously described and a giant encounter group which felt like lasted all night. At some point in my stay, they staged a “fun poll” about songs that really have meaning to you and why. I had shared the song that reminded me of my stepdad, one that reminded me of my relationship with my mother, and one that reminded of my high school boyfriend before I got into drugs who killed himself. They started to play the first song and led me to the floor while everyone watched, onto a mat, on my back, with the blindfold back on and staff and “live-outs” started yelling at me, putting hands on me, holding me down because I wanted OUT, impersonating my stepdad based on things I had shared with Anna and when they started to talk about the sexual abuse, I’ll never forget the feeling of horror that it was the one thing that I shared that was so deeply private that it took many months for us to get to. They perceived my break down crying as some type of “breakthrough”, but all I felt was further violated. They then yelled about my mother and my ex-boyfriend as I laid on the floor, but by then, all I could think about was how there was literally no safe place in the world.
The second betrayal of trust was when, in one of the occasional “family” sessions, my mother was waiting for me in Anna’s office, as was common, and as Anna explained to me that she had been filling my mother in about the sexual abuse that I reported to her and that I needed to talk to my mother about it. The only thing I could do was beg my mother not to tell anyone else, not her friends…and not my stepdad. I was finally free of him and I didn’t care if I never saw him again, I just wanted to heal. She agreed to this. But again, I felt that familiar horror that there was nothing sacred and no safe place.
After I completed my stay IN the facility and was in the one-year “live-out” phase of living independently. But still reporting to them weekly, etc, my stepdad, whom I hadn’t heard from in a few years at this point, invited me to dinner for my 19th birthday in 1994 and I reluctantly agreed. I didn’t know back then that “no” is a complete sentence and that I had permission to decline an invitation. So I met him at Anthony’s Fish Grotto near the San Diego Bay and we exchanged stiff pleasantries, sat, and I just looked at the hushpuppies sitting on the table, meant, I’m sure to accompany pre-dinner conversation. We order our food and after it arrives, Scott gets serious and I can’t look away from his focused-as-possible, beer- buzzed stare and says “Listen, your mom told me what you told her about something you think I did to you. I know that sometimes these doctors can put ideas in your head about this type of thing, but you and I both know that it didn’t happen.” All I could do was slowly and slightly nod in acknowledgement that he was speaking, but I couldn’t even respond to what he was saying except muttering “riiight” while continuing to hold his gaze. I didn’t eat another bite and at the first opportunity I thanked him for dinner and I left. I cried in my car before driving away from him forever.
When I asked my mother why she told him about this after she promised she wouldn’t, her response was “He’s still trying to fuck me over on the house”, which they agreed when they divorced he would continue to live in long enough to fix it up and sell it, splitting the proceeds. He still lives there to this day.
My experience of trauma, whether from my time in a “therapeutic community” or from other situations, is that it’s patient, has a long memory and there’s no way to outrun it. Oh sure, I tried to do just that in so many different ways throughout the years. You just can’t. Not really.
When I was excommunicated from Phoenix House, the only thing that kept me from self-destructing quickly thereafter was the fact that was I was pregnant and somehow felt that I was no longer making choices simply for myself. I did become incredibly depressed and had a hard time getting out of bed or functioning in other basic ways on many days throughout the pregnancy. I also began to compartmentalize in a familiar and automatic way and just refused to speak of any of it with anyone, including my mother, roommate, any “peers” who were still willing to risk their own skin to continue speaking to me (these were very few), my sponsor or others in my 12-Step recovery programs…I couldn’t even think about it specifically at all. I believe today that this was my psyche’s way of protecting me from extreme trauma as it had been called upon to do many times in my relatively short nineteen years. The way that it just *knew* what to do makes all the sense in the world to me now. It was so automatic and for the most part, seamless, that I didn’t even realize that’s what was happening. I mistook the fact that I was able to continue on in many ways as if the 18 months I spent in Phoenix House, the six months that I had been in the “live out” phase under their control and the heartbreak of the excommunication as a sign that it just wasn’t that big a deal was part of a regular “growing up” process.
One of the things that was drilled into our heads in Phoenix House was that we only needed each other and that we were “our” brother and sister’s keepers”, meaning that we were responsible for keeping each other accountable and out of trouble. From time to time, the staff would take a group of us to Narcotics Anonymous or other outside self-help programs, but we were not allowed to speak to anyone at the meetings. There was no encouragement to begin to build a network for life outside of Phoenix House. Because I was one of the older residents of the group by the time I completed the inpatient portion of the program, had graduated high school during my stay, and had a vehicle given to me by my mother, I was allowed to get a job outside of the house. I found a job at a place called Boudin Sourdough Bakery in the University Town Center/La Jolla area of San Diego, which was approximately 40 miles away from Phoenix House. I was discouraged from socializing with coworkers or really anyone who wasn’t a fellow resident. The level of paranoia and fear of anyone who might be a bad influence or “bring me down” that they had instilled in us seemed normal at the time, particularly since they seemed to want to make it clear that everything we learned while IN the program should be everything we were ever going to need to stay clean from drugs and stay out of any other type of trouble once we left. We were forbidden to associate in any way with anyone who so much as drank alcohol, even normally, smoked, or was an overall “bad influence”.
My Live Out living arrangements were to be that I would go live with my mother in the Ocean Beach neighborhood of San Diego. They had made it clear to my mother, who was an alcoholic when I was admitted to Phoenix House, that she would have to be completely sober if I was going to live with her, which even today seems like a reasonable expectation. My mother had been attending A.A. meetings and had stayed sober for some time prior to my completion of the program in order to make it all work. I was living with her approximately two weeks when one evening she came home and smelled like she had been drinking alcohol. She didn’t appear to be drunk, but did admit that she had had a slip. Because of the conditioning from Phoenix House to “drop my guilt” on any little thing lest I end up back using meth and living in dope houses, I immediately notified my counselor at Phoenix House and they demanded that I move out the next day and into the home of a fellow Live-Out, renting a room from them at my expense. Additionally, I was forbidden to speak to my mother again until and unless she could produce some proof that she has not had anything else to drink…which is impossible. The penalty for speaking to my mother or anyone else who drank was excommunication and “failure” of the program. You’re conditioned so deeply that you’ll fail and die (not an exaggeration) if you hold anything back from them that if you’re dedicated to graduating at the end of the Live Out phase and surviving overall, you do as you’re told. This hurt my mother very deeply in ways that I don’t believe we ever quite recovered from. She was quite angry that I would let them dictate my behavior and associations and my clap back was that SHE was the one who placed me in Phoenix House in the first place.
We were encouraged once we entered the one year live-out phase to stick close to our peers who were also in that phase. We returned to the Phoenix House Descanso facility weekly for Group, which would often be an encounter group if there was a Live Out who other Live Outs or staff felt like was breaking rules or otherwise behaving inappropriately. One of the other rules of the “Live-Out” phase was that you don’t have inappropriate relationships with any of your peers. You also aren’t safe, according to them, to socialize with anyone outside of your Phoenix House peer group, which includes dating.
“Kam” was a fellow Phoenix House Live-Out that I had actually gone to high school with prior to entering Phoenix House. In fact, a boy I dated for nine months in my Sophomore year was one of Kam’s best friends. Kam’s family had taken two Live-Outs into their home since they did not have appropriate placement options otherwise. They also financially contributed significantly to the facility, but I didn’t know this at the time. Kam’s family offered me a job in their office because they knew that now that I would be paying rent for the room in another family’s home, I would need a more steady job with more hours. We had never had an inkling of a romantic connection throughout or stay together at Phoenix House, but the boy I mentioned earlier whom I had dated in high school committed suicide while Kam and I were in Phoenix House and we had definitely trauma bonded over that. We did begin a romantic relationship over the course of the time I was working at his father’s family-owned business, but we kept it extremely private, secretive and no one else was aware that we were in a full-blown relationship for approximately six months or so. For both of us, the tremendous guilt that we felt that we had anything going on in our lives that our peers and the staff at Phoenix House didn’t know was incredibly heavy and neither of us was able to deal with that well. It was like a cancer, eating away at even the happiest of moments in our relationship.
When I became pregnant in October 1994, seven months into the “live-out” phase, we knew that we were going to have to reveal this if I planned to keep the baby. I urged Kam to just drop out of the whole program with me at that point because I knew that IF we weren’t “kicked out” of the live-out phase, we would certainly be punished severely, probably forced to come up the mountain to the facility to work from sun up to sun down for a few weekends, as I had seen countless live-outs on punishment come up to the ranch to perform throughout my time at Phoenix House. I gave Kam the heads-up that I planned to call a counselor at Phoenix House and talk maybe coming up and speaking with them before or after our weekly live-out group so that he could talk to his parents first. Kam’s parents were understandably shocked, both that we were involved in an intimate, sexual relationship and of course by the pregnancy to boot. They were very devout Catholics and they believed that Kam was a virgin at that point. He had been before we became intimate, which I didn’t realize until afterward.
I did not anticipate what would occur next. After Kam told his parents, they notified Phoenix House of the news before I had the chance to do so, seemingly as an attempt to show that he had planned to tell them but that I had intended to continue to hide it from them. It worked. I was phoned by one of the counselors and notified that my “secret” had been shared with them and that due to my attempt to hide the facts of our relationship and my pregnancy, I was no longer considered a Phoenix House live-out and would not be allowed to “graduate” in five months. Kam was required to perform several weekend “bum squads” which was physical labor for several weekends to atone. He also was forbidden to communicate with me further at the risk of not being excommunicated. We did continue to communicate, even moving into a tiny apartment together, with him going back and forth to his parents’ house to conceal our involvement as much as possible. They knew at some point that we were “shacking up”, but they hid it from Phoenix House since Kam being excommunicated would impact their arrangements with the two residents they had living in their home, as they would be forbidden to communicate with him. Immediately, all of the peers I had lived in Phoenix House with, those they forced us to refer to as “brother” and “sister” and “family” were forbidden to speak to me or even acknowledge my presence if they encountered me. We had all attended the same Narcotics Anonymous meetings and socialized primarily only with each other, since we were isolated from anyone outside of our bubble. When they ended up running into me in passing at a meeting, they looked down, wouldn’t make eye contact. Since I had been estranged from my mother at Phoenix House’s insistence, I essentially had no one at this point, no support system, no safety net.
Having a history of substantial trauma, shame and sexual abuse, the message sent to me by being excommunicated while Kam was not was the same message we got while IN the Phoenix House facility, which is that as the female, I had “brought him down” and I had a deep, disproportionate sense of responsibility and shame as a result. This stayed with me for decades, but I didn’t understand it for so long.
After this occurred, I never spoke of it with anyone again. When my child was four, I married a man who knew that I had used drugs as a teen, was in a treatment program and that it was a phase. I convinced him…and myself that there was nothing else to tell about it. After a few years of marriage, I convinced him to move across the country in what I see now as an attempt to shut out any possible memories, associations or run-ins with anyone from the program and start over entirely like it never happened. I became a PTA mom and made friends, but never shared about my life before our arrival in our new state except in generalities. With not another living soul did I share that I had experienced anything prior to meeting my husband. I returned to binge drinking alcohol for the greater part of the following ten years. After ten years of attempting to drink away the trauma and PTSD and forgetting I had to do of my earlier life, I was prescribed opioid pain prescriptions after developing migraines and a couple of injuries and became hopelessly addicted to them, using lethal amounts daily for the next five years. I got sober in March 2013.
In 2015, someone I had reconnected with on Facebook, my “big sister” from Phoenix House added me to an online group of adults who, as adolescents, had been residents of the same facility I experienced. The catalyst for the creation of this book was the news of the closure of our our Phoenix House program for findings by San Diego County of sexual abuse of a resident by a member of their staff, another staff member providing pornography to adolescent residents and violent fights involving upwards of 20 residents at a time and resulting in major injuries. It was upon reading this news and the subsequent reminiscent discussions between members of the newly-formed social media discussion space that I was faced with my past in living color and the fact that I was not surprised by any of the findings in the article I found in the Baltimore Sun hit me like a ton of bricks: “Youth Home Closed For Sex Acts/Meth”. This story detailed that, out of many other safety concerns posed by the county, a member of the staff was found to have had sexual relations with a client. The worst part is that this was hardly news.
For the next couple of years, unbeknownst to me, I carried the guilt of the two decades of victims of this program since I was there. I knew rationally that I wasn’t to blame for the abuse of anyone who encountered that program since I was there. The thorough brainwashing that I had from the cult experience of Phoenix House had forced me to tell myself for all of those years, like a mantra “but they saved my life” and “but I’m better off for having been there, aren’t I?” like a mantra and the door to my past had been slammed shut years ago. Still, I couldn’t help but feel like if I had understood the emotional and deep psychological damage created by my experiences there and later my excommunication, my casting out of by “family”, perhaps I would have felt compelled to start thinking about it, talking about it, seeking professional therapeutic help about it and writing about it sooner. Still, better late than never. If one survivor of Phoenix House or any other abusive “troubled teen” program hears that they are not “crazy”, that they WERE abused and victimized and that their problems that may have resulted are not their fault, it is worth every bit of the ripping open of this wound that has been part of my necessary path to healing.
In 2015, the same year that Phoenix House closed the Descanso, California facility before the State of California forced the closure, they also quietly closed the rest of their adolescent inpatient facilities, but are still providing care in an outpatient setting to children. Many of their adult facilities remain open and are expanding.