Tuesday, September 28, 2021

Book Review: Stolen by Elizabeth Gilpin


A startling and fascinating new book and an equally mesmerizing new Netflix documentary look at organizations which are designed to destroy people’s self actualization and their true selves in favor of a particularly monstrous form of groupthink. As the author of Stolen says, attendees were supposed to become like bees in a hive. Both of these groups twisted religion and psychotherapy to the point that they are almost unrecognizable.

One, the one described in the book, was even worse than the other, if that’s even possible, because it attacked and destroyed children: so called “schools” for “troubled” kids. At least the one described in the documentary was aimed at adults who were willing participants.

This post will be about the book, while the doc will be described in the next one. Stolen, was written by a woman who, when she was 15 years old, was a star high school athlete in two sports and an A student—but was nonetheless labeled as a disturbed troublemaker by her highly critical and often absent father and a hyper-religious mother who spent a lot of her time reading the Bible. Gilpin doesn’t describe any physical or sexual abuse in her home, but strongly implies that her parents, particularly her Dad, were verbally abusive and highly invalidating. Her Mom would support her privately but then always side with the Dad when the family was together.

She had started running away when she was only five, and later began partying with high school friends to avoid being home. She was also admittedly very angry and at times returned the father's verbal abuse, and she did dabble in alcohol and pot a few times. But the book doesn’t really describe in detail why she was so angry, although she did accuse her parents of never believing her. Oddly, the parents entirely discounted their own parenting as a factor in her behavior and never seem to wonder what made her like she was. At one point during her stay at the school, her father wrote a letter that said, “I’m glad that you’ve been able to accept that you’re ultimately to blame for your own anger.”

She was suddenly taken away by strangers in the middle of the night and sent to a “therapeutic” boarding school run by an organization called CEBU, which was anything but therapeutic. For the first three months, the teens were made to hike over and over again to a bunch of different campsites in the middle of the woods and were subject to physical abuse, such as being made to keep marching even after the group was attacked by a hive of bees and had multiple stings. They weren’t allowed to shower and were given crap to eat. They were monitored constantly and communication between the victims was highly restricted.

They were then transferred to a high school which had various exercises that were designed after something we Californians were aware of in the sixties and seventies called the Synanon Games, a twisted version of AA. More on Synanon at the end of the post.

During these games the teens were subject to vicious verbal attacks from the people running the school, and also forced to attack one another in the same way. For the high crime of having engaged in a sex act, for example, the girls were called sluts and whores who were desperately seeking attention (because they were starved of it at home perhaps?). With the boys, however, the prevailing attitude was “boys will be boys.” 

Gilpin was still a virgin at the time, but was immediately told she was a liar when she said that. She was accused of being a drug addict and an alcoholic despite her limited behavior in this regard. If a student denied being an addict, they were immediately accused of being “in denial.”

If she told the truth, it never seemed to be bad enough for the counselors, so she began to just make stuff up. Clearly she wasn’t the only one of the teens who felt they had to do that. If the teens rebelled, they were punished severely. Once when she threw up she was forced to eat her own vomit. They were threatened with being transferred to an even worse facility, masquerading as a hospital, if they did not fall in line.

Clearly the program was an exercise in degradation designed to stamp out any semblance of individuality. Gilpin said that the more self hating she seemed, the more she was praised for “doing good work.” In reality, both her parents and the school were victim blaming, scapegoating her for her own abuse at their hands. One of her friends there later committed suicide.

Interestingly, even after she “graduated,” she did not tell her parents exactly what took place at the school. At least she did not write about doing so. She described herself as letting her anger with them take over, doing nothing but shouting at them about how f’d up they were for sending her to such an awful place. IMO, in doing this, she was actually providing her parents with justification for their having sent her there in the first place. Protecting them to an extent, just as I suspect she was doing by not describing in more detail in the book the way they had been treating her that made her want to run away so badly.

Synanon was initially a drug rehabilitation program founded by Charles E. Dederich in 1958 in Santa Monica, California. By the early 1960s, Synanon became an alternative community - later labeled a cult - centered on group truth-telling sessions that came to be known as the Synanon Game, a form of attack therapy. 

Attack therapy involves highly confrontational interaction between the patient and a therapist, or between the patient and fellow patients during group therapy, in which the patient may be verbally abused, denounced, or humiliated by the therapist or other members of the group. Attack therapy "attempts to tear down the patient's defenses by extreme verbal or physical measures."

Synanon ultimately became the Church of Synanon in the 1970s. Synanon disbanded in 1991 due to members being convicted of criminal activities (including attempted murder) and retroactive loss of its tax-free status with the Internal Revenue Service due to financial misdeeds, destruction of evidence, and terrorism. It has been called one of the “most dangerous and violent cults America had ever seen." Mel Wasserman, influenced by his Synanon experience, founded the CEDU's schools which used the confrontation model of Synanon. 

The CEDU model was widely influential on the development of parent-choice, private-pay residential programs. People originally inspired by their CEDU experience developed or strongly influenced a significant number of the schools in the therapeutic boarding school industry.

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