I recently read a book by Cyndy Drew Etler titled, The Dead Inside. The book is about Cyndy’s experience with Straight, Inc. I’d never even heard of Straight until I read this book. You can see my original post on The Dead Inside which will soon contain a Q&A with the author and you can also see the trailer for the documentary/movie on Straight by clicking HERE.
I found this story to be incredibly disturbing and as I began searching online, I found countless cases regarding kids who were abused in this program. These programs at one point were supported by members of government including Nancy Reagan and George H.W. Bush.
After my research I met Christine Flannery, a Cincinnati Straight Survivor who was in the program from 1984-1986. You can read her story on her website by clicking HERE. I was able to speak with Christine about her experience at Straight. You can learn more about Straight and see the Q&A with Christine Flannery below.
What is Straight, Inc?
Straight, Inc. (1976-1993) publicly claimed to rehabilitate teenage drug users by using tough love and Alcoholics Anonymous principles. Straight, Inc. provided NO professional counseling: Straight, Inc.’s “treatment model” relied exclusively on “positive peer pressure” from unprofessional staff (program graduates) and from the teenage clients. Straight, Inc. claimed to have an astronomically high success rate and was supported by both the Reagan and Bush administrations. However, Straight, Inc. did not publicly reveal what many survivors will tell you. The REAL Straight, Inc. was a facility that used coercive thought reform (aka mind control, brainwashing), public humiliation, sleep & food deprivation, extremely harsh confrontational tactics, kidnapping, isolation and emotional, mental, psychological, verbal and physical abuse to forcibly break us down then remold us in the Straight, Inc. image. Straight, Inc. also operated in secrecy, just like a cult (Straight, Inc. has been listed on at least 2 cult expert websites). No outsiders were ever permitted to know what really went on. Straight’s rules and our fear of harsh punishment prevented us from talking to outsiders or from reporting abuses.- From Christine’s website
Here’s a video that Christine put together regarding Straight, Inc.
As many as 50,000 kids were in the Straight program, Straight, Inc. is the biggest violator of human rights and civil liberties that this country has ever seen. There are accounts of food and sleep deprivation, making kids soil their pants, beatings, spitting in kids faces, and marathon sessions where teenagers would be yelled at by many other kids for long periods of time. Children were forbidden from reading any material including religious books. Conditions were so deplorable that kids had to be watched 24/7, even as they wiped themselves on the toilet (reminiscent of Nazi concentration camps where Jews were made to defecate publicly like cats and dogs) to make sure they did not commit suicide. Under such deplorable and humiliating conditions many kids resorted to carving on their bodies with a fingernail, piece of broken chair, or whatever else they could find just as a caged animal gnarls at an open sore. –From the Medical Whistleblower Advocacy Network.
Straight, Inc. was also renamed…
As Christine mentions on her website, Straight, Inc. became Kids Helping Kids, Pathway Family Center, Life, Growing Together, KIDS (of North Jersey, El Paso, etc.), SAFE, Alberta Adolescent Recovery Center (AARC), and others. Even though most of these spin-offs have been shut down, there are still similar programs for troubled teens that follow the same tactics as Straight.
In this video below regarding KIDS, which is basically the same program renamed after Straight, you will see how teens that were once in the program themselves became the counselors working with kids that have been brought into the program. These kids themselves are considered the professional staff.
Here’s another one about SAFE, another renamed Straight program. The video is old, but worth watching…
Continue reading to see the Q&A with Christine Flannery…
Q & A with Straight survivor Christine Flannery
Q: The way you describe your first encounter with Straight sounds very scary. Do you remember how you felt at the time you were admitted there?
A: It was probably the most terrifying day of my life. Teenagers interrogated me, called me a liar repeatedly, which caused me extreme stress and confusion. The teenage “staff” then conducted an extremely humiliating strip search. I felt extremely overwhelmed, intimidated, terrified, disoriented, confused and shell-shocked by the time staff introduced me to the group. Being admitted to Straight felt surreal, like a horrible nightmare that I felt trapped in and couldn’t wake up from.
Mischenko: The experiences sound brutal. It was difficult to grasp the idea of strip searching and shocking to hear that the teens even had to undergo a rectal examination without consent while being held down.
Q: Were you able to make any friends while in Straight? Were there any people there that you got along with, helped you, or made you feel more comfortable?
A: I participated in the mandatory “friendships.” Straight required everyone go on “permissions,” outings approved by Straight, with other Straight clients, while on 4th and 5th phase. I vaguely remember I liked a few people but I never felt comfortable with anyone. I walked on eggshells, lived in extreme fear and felt paranoid the entire time I was in Straight. The program required we report each other for real or imaginary, minor or serious infractions. Your so-called friends could become your enemy at any moment.
Q: What forms of physical punishment do you remember most vividly at Straight?
A: Kids in Straight were required to restrain misbehavers, those not following the rules. The infractions that could lead to violent restraints included slouching in a chair, not paying attention to the person talking, not motivating, or other minor infractions. The children surrounding the non-compliant kid would force him or her to sit up straight, force their head in the direction of the person talking, or force arms in the air to motivate. When the non-compliant teen resisted force, violence erupted. Surrounding children grabbed and tackled the misbehaver. Teenage clients viciously slammed the kid to the floor. Four to five untrained children would sit on limbs and hold the head, sometimes for hours on end. Straight regularly allowed violent and chaotic restraints as punishment. Watching children horribly mistreat and abuse each other terrified me.
Mischenko: I was also shocked to hear this! I read that there were deaths from children being restrained. It’s just so tragic.
Q: Were you ever physically hit by someone or restrained to the point where you were in pain?
A: Even though I don’t remember a lot about myself in Straight, I know I was never restrained as a client. However, after I graduated (7 stepped) Straight, I was kidnapped. I broke Straight’s aftercare “no dating” rule. My parents pleaded and demanded I sign myself back in Straight. When I refused my parents grabbed me. I thrashed, kicked, screamed and tried everything I could to break free of them to no avail. Three to five adults physically restrained me and forced me into a car. I don’t recall if it was physically painful but it was definitely emotionally painful.
Q: You had mentioned never having privacy at Straight. At any point were you subjected to sexual abuse or did you witness it?
A: No, fortunately I was never sexually abused and never witnessed it. I know it happened to others though due to numerous newspaper and survivor accounts.
Q: When reading The Dead Inside, Cyndy Etler describes the host homes as having nothing in them at all. She also describes the requirement for wearing strange clothing and not being allowed to have anything, even underwear. Is that how you would describe your host home?
A: The empty, bare walled, furniture free phaser room had nothing in it except mattresses, one of which would be used to block the door. As a newcomer staying with other families and as an oldcomer in my own home, I noticed the phaser rooms were all identical, stark naked. However, some homes used dead bolts to lock us in while others installed alarms to imprison us. Straight outlawed bras in the phaser room but I cannot recall the sleeping attire. However, no extra clothes were permitted in the phaser room to discourage escape attempts.
While newcomers, parents sent us the ugliest, most ill-fitting clothes imaginable. Straight banned anything deemed “imagy” meaning no trendy or fashionable clothing, no long hair, no make-up, no jewelry, no brushing ones hair excessively, no looking in the mirror too long, etc. Between the ugly clothes, terrible haircuts, excessive use of barrettes, and nothing to hide our acne or other imperfections, Straight obliterated our already fragile self-esteems. As old-comers it really wasn’t much better.
Mischenko: Having been stripped of everything you have, your identity and family, it’s understandable how some teens became delusional.
Q: As you progressed through the 7 steps at Straight, were you ever sent back to a previous step because of something you did wrong?
A: While on 4th phase I was punished with a refresher that lasted 3-4 weeks. The fortress guarding my mind and psyche blocks out the details of what transpired. But, in recent years my newcomer explained to me “the wrong” I committed. The phaser room alarm created an overnight jail cell in which the prisoners (us) could not leave, not even to use the bathroom. During the night, either myself or another newcomer urinated in bed. I cleaned the mess in the morning, after my parents released us from the phaser room. So I was blasted in open meeting review and set back even though our imprisonment prevented clean up during the night. Ironically, Straight denied free access to restrooms all the time. Trying to use the restroom in between designated times could lead to accusations of avoiding group. As a result, requests to go were frequently denied causing accidents in group. I remember some girls had to sit in their soiled clothing.
Straight almost re-enrolled me all over again after graduating from Straight. Five months into the aftercare, I broke Straight’s “no dating for 6 months” rule. Once I turned 18, I mistakenly believed Straight’s control of me ended. After my step-monster caught me holding hands with a boy, my parents kicked me out of my house, kidnapped me two days later (at Straight’s direction), and forcibly returned me to Straight. Straight staff and my parents tried to coerce me to “agree to” a 7 step refresher. But police foiled their plan and rescued me.
Mischenko: I noticed in the movie trailer that there was a 22 year old that admitted herself to Straight and was prevented from leaving. It’s so frightening. It’s obvious that Straight was brainwashing people, including parents.
Q: While reading The Dead Inside by Cyndy Drew Etler, I learned that it was expected to yell out loud the drugs that you had abused and when Straight associates felt that you were being honest, you would move closer to leaving the Straight program by possibly moving up a step. In Cyndy’s case, she felt that she had to lie because she really wasn’t using drugs other than pot. Having only been drunk once and never even using drugs, did you at any point have to lie and make up information to move forward with your steps?
A: I didn’t lie but Straight screwed up my head to the point I eventually believed I was a druggie. On my intake, unqualified teenagers confronted me, accusing me of dishonesty about my “drug list.” Staff focused on Liquid Paper because I used white-out for school work. Straight used my neat freak habit against me. So while I kept denying the accusations of getting high off Liquid Paper, I started to question myself. I remembered that white-out had an odor and that I could smell it. In my naïve mind, having zero self-confidence, being easily intimidated and under Straight’s influence, I eventually believed I got high off white-out. I “got honest” and added Liquid Paper to my drug list shortly after enrollment. I gradually came to believe something about myself that wasn’t true. Failure to admit I was a druggie, would have kept me on 1st phase indefinitely.
Q: Once out of Straight you had mentioned going through a ‘party’ period. Were you using drugs and alcohol during that time? How did you break free of it and do you think your experience with Straight helped?
A: After the kidnapping I “snapped out of it,” starting a traumatic and reckless deprogramming phase. My extreme anger and rebellion against Straight and my parents, combined with PTSD, lead me down a rocky road. Straight’s false teachings left me a dysfunctional social cripple, without the first clue who I was. As a result, I set out to rid myself of my “Straight created personality,” to forget Straight, and to bury it as deeply as possible. So, almost overnight I started drinking frequently, going to nightclubs to dance or see live bands. I’m lucky I didn’t get killed with all the drunk driving. I experimented with drugs during this period. I tried Pot many times but I never liked it and eventually stopped bothering with it. I tried Acid a few times and Rush once. Even at my wildest, drugs weren’t my style but I partied all the time. I showed up to work with a hangover on countless occasions. I attempted a few college courses but partying was top priority so I stopped going. I abandoned apartments to move across country on a whim, twice, with almost no money both times. Financially I was extremely reckless and irresponsible. I attracted abusive men. One even tried to kill me. I also attracted horrible people as roommates and friends. I was a mess therefore I attracted those who were also a mess. The company I kept caused a lot of problems.
Eventually I reached a turning-point where I started to want better for myself. So I just started moving in a different direction. Nothing about Straight helped me break free though. Straight almost destroyed me. My sheer determination and perseverance eventually enabled me to pull myself out of my self-destructive phase. The slow process of turning my life around, through years of trial and error eventually paid off.
Q: You mentioned suffering PTSD and needing a therapist to help with recovery. How do you feel your mental state is now? Do you still experience flashbacks, nightmares and anxiety?
A: The nightmares gradually ended. Recognizing my triggers also eliminated my panic attacks. But, when something triggers my PTSD, I struggle to keep the symptoms under control. For example, if I talk about Straight excessively or if I encounter those who still defend Straight, I experience severe anxiety, difficulty breathing, trouble concentrating, difficulty doing normal tasks (I go in circles), and overwhelming emotions. Even worse, confrontation of any kind or false accusations can cripple me. Visiting other Straight survivors, a healing experience, also activates my PTSD. All these above-mentioned symptoms are severe. I always need to rest and recuperate afterward. In spite of these challenges, life is good. I function pretty well overall.
Q: I’ve heard a few Straight survivors say that in a way, Straight helped them in their future and changed their lives for the better. Did anything positive come out of your Straight experience or do you think it helped you at all now that you’re an adult?
A: Straight, the worst experience of my life, created many obstacles for me to overcome. Trying to forget Straight sent me down a trail of self-destruction. Eventually I pulled myself together and went to the opposite extreme; I embarked on a path of overachievement, and completely reinvented myself. I learned how to help myself overcome extreme obstacles when the odds seemed stacked against me.
Then I accidentally found Straight survivors online 12 years ago, which dramatically changed my life for the better. I connected with some incredible people. My PTSD diagnosis opened the door for healing. Then, the impossible occurred. I transformed my pain and anger into something useful: Activism and my website. I also realized helping others heal helps me heal.
Mischenko: I commend you on your bravery, Christine. I think it’s fabulous that you’re dedicating yourself to helping others.
Q: How is your relationship with your father and your step-mother now?
A: My anger and resentment toward my dad created a lot of tension in my relationship with him for years. But when my dad discovered Straight gave me PTSD, when I explained I never tried drugs before Straight, when I described some specific things that happened in Straight, he apologized. Since my dad finally believed me, the tension between my dad and I about Straight disappeared. Even though it was obviously a huge mistake on his part, I know my Dad meant well. Once he apologized I easily forgave him.
On the other hand, forgiving my ex step mother may never happen. The step monster habitually targeted me with accusations, sometimes true, but many false. I was always her first and prime suspect. My role in the family: the accused, the family scapegoat. Conveniently for her, Straight offered a dumping ground, to rid her of a problem, me. Stubborn, rebellious, defiant, strong-willed, but broken, sad, depressed, heartbroken me definitely needed help, not lock-down in a hell-hole for a “crime” I did not commit. Sadly, my ex step mother may have been in the early stages of a delusional disorder, possibly playing a role in the false accusations. Although I should be sympathetic to her (now severe) mental illness, I’m not there yet. My ex step mom and I are not on good terms and probably never will be.
Q: Have you ever thought about writing a biography or a book in general regarding your Straight experience?
The idea of writing a book about my experience in Straight dawned on me when I was 19 years old. But until recently, I wasn’t sure how I wanted to present my story and I wasn’t ready to tackle it. But, I’m ready now. I just started outlining a couple weeks ago.
Mischenko: I’m very supportive of your choice to write a book and I’m interested in reading it.
Q: Have you been able to interact with or help any parents dealing with a “troubled teen?”
A: Unfortunately I haven’t done that yet. Having a full time job time limits my time. After I finish gathering Straight documentation and writing my book, I hope to branch out to educate parents and professionals. In the meantime, I added a “Message To Parents” page on my website geared to parents of troubled teens now.
Mischenko: You can read the Message To Parents by clicking the link above…
Q: You mentioned graduating from Law school and I’d like to say congratulations on all your hard work! Can you describe your career now and what was your main goal with starting your website www.survivingstraightinc.com?
A: My career choice drastically changed in 2005. Instead of practicing law like I planned, I took up activism. I “woke up” and found Straight survivors online during my last semester of law school. I slowly started participating in protests against Straight spin-off programs and talking to reporters about Straight. I created my website Surviving Straight Inc in 2006 for a few reasons. Survivors stories, scattered all over the internet, needed to be in one place. Collectively, our haunted voices echo loudly, impacting the public, researchers and survivors more profoundly than one lone voice could. Surviving Straight Inc. gives survivors a place to publicly document their experience in their own words; helps survivors heal by validating their experience with newspaper articles, documents, videos and Straight online groups; And, educates the public about the REAL Straight, Inc and the horrible long term effects of Straight’s “treatment methods.”
Q: Do you know of any programs similar to Straight that are still open?
A: AARC in Canada is a KIDS/Straight spin off that is still open. It’s possible there are others out there that I don’t know about. If my research uncovers more I will add them to my website.
Up until 2008/2009, Straight spin-offs operated in Ohio, Michigan and Indiana. Straight, Kids Helping Kids and Pathway Family Center survivors, including myself, repeatedly protested against Kids Helping Kids and Pathway Family Center from 2006-2009. Kids Helping Kids finally closed in late 2008 and Pathway Family Center closed in 2009.
Most importantly, the unregulated “troubled teen industry” still employs questionable and sometimes dangerous practices. “Break them down and rebuild them,” still exists. Destruction of individual identity, coercive though reform and coercive behavior modification still exists. Extreme isolation, completely severing a child’s connection to parents, friends, and society is still used by programs. Institutional child abuse still destroys children.
Q: If you could talk with parents who are dealing with a troubled teen, what would you say to them?
A: I would tell parents the following: 1) Try the least restrictive interventions first. 2) Long term programs should be a last resort but if you feel its necessary, remember the following: 3) When talking to program representatives ask numerous questions. If they try to dismiss your questions or concerns, that might be a red flag. 4) Get a 2nd opinion. 5) Program brochures and websites are frequently a misleading SALES PITCH. 6) Bad programs do not advertise or think they are bad. Bad places usually look good “on paper” as well. 7) Thoroughly research online. Carefully consider both glowing testimonials and horror stories. 8) Do NOT make decisions under extreme emotional stress or under pressure from a program.
Deceptive marketing, slick sales pitches, glowing testimonials and being emotionally distraught makes parents extremely vulnerable and more likely to miss red flags.
Mischenko: Thank you, Christine, for all the helpful information for parents. I hope that more parents and teens will be led to your website below…
I’d like to thank Christine for taking the time to complete this Q&A so that others can learn about Straight, Inc.
Christine has other survivor stories, documents, and videos on her website. For more information or to contact Christine Flannery, please visit her website:
Books to read regarding Straight: You can click the covers to add on Goodreads
The Dead Inside by Cyndy Drew Etler
Institutionalized Persuasion: The Technology of Reformation in Straight Incorporated and the Residential Teen Treatment Industry by Marcus Chatfield
Help at Any Cost: How the Troubled-Teen Industry Cons Parents and Hurts Kids by Maia Szalavitz
The Great Drug War by Arnold S. Trebach
Contains a few chapters on Straight…