I recently read The Dead Inside by Cyndy Drew Etler and learned about Straight, Inc. for the first time. I’d never even heard of Straight and was quite shocked with Cyndy’s story. Cyndy was a troubled teen in the 80’s who had some experiences that aren’t all that uncommon. She was making wrong choices while trying to find her place in the world, until at the age of 14, when her mother decided to throw her into a drug rehabilitation for throwaway kids who are deemed out of control. This institution was called Straight, Inc.
I was able to ask Cyndy some questions about her experience with Straight and have included them below for those interested.
In case you haven’t learned about Straight, I encourage you to view my original review which includes videos and more information for The Dead Inside HERE and also the Q&A with Christine Flannery, another Straight survivor HERE.
Cyndy’s new book We Can’t Be Friends will be available later this year. You can find information on that below.
Q&A with Cyndy Etler
Q: Have you always dreamed of becoming an author or do you feel that your experience with Straight influenced you to start writing?
A: Yes, and yes! I’ve wanted to be a “real, true” writer since I was single-digit age. I didn’t have the balls to pursue writing as a career—to major in creative writing, say—because I knew “you can’t make a living as a writer.” For years, I got up at 4:30 in the morning to write before going to teach high school. When I’m in a metaphysical state of mind, I interpret Straight, and all the other crazy shit I experienced as a child, as part of some master plan: I was “given” all that horror so I’d have irresistible, WTF-bruh-true-stories to tell.
Q: Do you plan on writing anymore books pertaining to Straight?
A: The sequel to THE DEAD INSIDE—WE CAN’T BE FRIENDS, pub date October 3—looks at Straight from another angle: in the rear-view mirror. It’s the story of getting out of a cult, complete with the terror and the depression and the brainwashing, and trying to adapt to the scariest of “normal” environments: a Connecticut high school. WE CAN’T BE FRIENDS covers the weird after effects of having had your brain and personality yanked out, recoded, and shoved back into your skull.
Q: Do you think you will write books in any other genre?
A: Ohhh, that’s a good’un. I can’t imagine how fiction writers do it—where do they get the frigging plot, the frigging all of it? I feel like a one trick pony, and my single trick is writing about real-life events that I’ve experienced or observed. That being said, I kick around the idea of writing a tell-all from the perspective of a veteran public school teacher—yeouch; that one’s gonna hurt—and also the idea of writing realistic fiction for teens, where readers get to contribute their ideas to the story-line.
Q: Are you working on anything now?
A: Mostly I’m working on submissions for “the glossies” and the biggie-big blogs. The other day I got a wild hair and started the sequel to WE CAN’T BE FRIENDS, but I don’t think it’s time to put my energy into that yet. When I go into book-writing mode, the entire rest of my world shuts down—I can’t work or eat or shower or be married for ten or twelve months straight. I get up at 4:30 AM and write until 4 or 5 PM. To make that kind of commitment, I have to know it’s time to commit.
Q: What forms of physical punishment do you remember most vividly at Straight?
A: Oh my God, that question hit like blind upper cut. Shit. It’s weird how the brain works: I had to look away, and try to think of how to answer that, and then I found myself spending a half hour googling things on my phone like “Buddhist temple in my city”, and “international book club.” As in, anything that would take me far, far away from the images and sounds in my head. Good brain. Nice brain.
But now, the answer, in brief: the violence was child-on-child. Which is the thing that makes me almost vomit, typing it. We were all children in Straight, with the exception of the few of us who were perhaps 19, and the “executive staff,” who wore suits and kept their hands dry and clean. The regular staff, and of course all of us in group, were kids. I was barely 14 when I went in.
With hundreds of us in group at any given time, they couldn’t keep us in line physically, as is done in prisons, or with prisoners of war. Straight had to control us mentally. One of the ways they did that was to make an example of those kids who dared to “misbehave”—which often meant just refusing to sit up ramrod straight, with no part of your back touching the chair. When a kid didn’t sit up straight, or didn’t “motivate,” or didn’t sing the nursery school song, staff would give a command or sign for the “trusted” group members to “take the kid down” in human restraint…and man, the tackling kids got off on that power, on that release of aggression.
The misbehaver would have four or five kids rush at him from all sides. They would grab him—and I say “him” for sake of ease; there were just as many girl misbehavers as guys—by any body part they could clutch, and slam, slam, him to the tile floor. I remember the crack of skull hitting tile. I remember the slap and grunt of multiple kids–kids full of terror and anger thrust into a role of aggression, with all-powerful staff members lauding them for the violence, with hundreds of hungry peers watching their every move—flexing unchecked their craving for dominance. I remember kids kicking and bucking and bashing their head, over and over, against the tile. I remember kids HUFF slamming their body down onto the misbehaver’s chest, their middle. I remember watching arms and legs wrestled into submission, pulled backwards the wrong way, screaming swear words, screaming like they were being slaughtered. I remember the screams. I remember the cries. I guess I’ll change the channel now. The sounds in my head are almost worse than the visuals.
The more typical violence stuff happened behind closed doors. Outside of my intake “cavity search,” if it happened to me, I’ve blocked it out. I’ve read about rapes. I’ve read about straight up beatings.
Q: Do you remember witnessing any sexual abuse at Straight or hearing about it from others?
A: As I said above, I’ve heard about it—online, years after the fact—but I don’t remember witnessing it first hand. But then, my memory shorts out after the first two weeks or so in there, which is why there’s such a dramatic shift in THE DEAD INSIDE, from describing the cult’s norms, to going dark and then resurfacing when they “7 Stepped,” or graduated, me: I’ve blocked it out.
Unless you call the “spanking machine” sexual abuse. Or the long, long lines we had to stand in for hours every night, smashed pubis-to-buttock-to-pubis-to-buttock, with the girls in front of and behind us. Or the fact that an “upper phaser” kept their hand in the back of our pants, and yanked our pants up into our sexual cavities, every time we moved while on first phase, which for me was 10 months long.
Q: The way you described your host house sounded so strange and scary. Did you feel like you could trust the host family that you stayed with?
A: Nope. The parents were as brainwashed into being psychologically destructive as the kids in Straight were. There were certain host families that staff new were maybe a bit gentler, more empathetic—which just meant perhaps you got margarine for your toast, seriously; they couldn’t get away with breaking any rules or THEY would get in trouble at Straight. I’m serious. It was part of the trippery, though: kids staff liked would get placed in the somewhat gentler host homes; kids they singled out for the worst abuse—people who were in with me tell me I fell into that category—were kept in the most sadistic host home. The family you met in THE DEAD INSIDE wasn’t one of the worst, but I didn’t stay there long. You’ll meet a host-sister in WE CAN’T BE FRIENDS who I was kept with forever, because she was just mean.
Q: I noticed after watching some videos regarding Straight that often they would tell teens, “You are safe here.” Did you feel SAFE at Straight?
A: Here’s what I can say to that:
I think you must be referring to what Straight said to parents, as part of its marketing ploy: “ Straight may be tough, but at least you know your kids are safe. They’re not out on the street anymore, killing themselves with drugs and other addictions.” Such baloney allowed parents to feel they were doing the right thing, even when—as was the case for me—the parent’s true objective was just to get the kid out of their hair, out of their second marriage, etcetera.
Q: Do you have any issues like anxiety, flashbacks, or PTSD from your experience at Straight and did you need any therapy after everything you went through?
A: Same answer:
I have literally been in therapy for my whole, entire, life. I think all of us who were in Straight have PTSD; basic functioning in public, and at work, and in relationships, and especially in groups, is nearly impossible for us. I perceive the Straight dynamic and bullshit hierarchy in literally every group situation I’m exposed to; if I have any motivation to function in that environment, boom! Time for a therapy appointment. Amongst, of course, many, many other issues I’ve worked hard to resolve.
Q: Do you think the yelling and verbal abuse lowered your self confidence or changed the way you socialize with others?
A: Yes, but more than the yelling and verbal stuff, it was the overall dynamic of growing up, for 16 months, literally and metaphorically trapped in a place where everyone was out to get me. (I truly was “growing up” at that time, as the ages between 13 and 15 are prime brain development phases And everyone was out to get everyone else. That was the only way to survive.) So experiencing that with no relief—there was not a single person there who I trusted, who was kind to me, who wanted to do anything but exploit me for public torture for the first 12 months—it did very bad permanent things to my brain. I don’t trust people. Like, period. I’m not sure if that can ever change; it was burned into my gray matter like a hand-print in hardening concrete.
Q: Do you think that your parents were ‘hypnotized’ into putting you into Straight?
A: Nope. I think my mother sees what she needs to see to meet her own needs, and I think Straight had excellent marketing. Brilliant marketing.
Q: How is your relationship with your mother and step-father now?
A: I speak to my mother rarely; maybe one a year. We keep it light. The man she was married to, she divorced shortly after I got out of Straight.
Q: Did you ever think that you should press charges against your step-father?
A: Oh boy. Well, long story short, she never really acknowledged that he had done anything to me. She hinted at it, obliquely, 30 years after the fact, but when I was a child, a teen, she literally told me that I deserved everything I got. Yeah. Sorry.
Q: Do you believe that your mother knew all along what was happening with your step-father and do you have any resentment because of it?
A: Hmmm…that’s a good question. You know, I don’t know if I’ve ever considered whether or not she actually knew, in her soul of souls. My God, how weird is that? Um…I guess I just accept that she…puts her needs first. For her own reasons, she needed to scapegoat me. For her own reasons, she needed to justify his beating me as “brought on by my acting out,” rather than seeing, “Cyndy is acting out because my frigging husband is molesting her.”
It’s like, you know how in Algebra you have to take the elements of an equation and flip them all around, rearrange them, and still get an answer that matches one of the original elements? I think her logic was like that. Same elements—Cyndy screaming and “throwing tantrums,” husband chasing Cyndy around and trapping her in rooms and hitting her, Cyndy running away…but depending on which variables you put where, my “behavior” can be seen as bratty and selfish and bad, or as justified and desperate and beseeching. Many, many parents frame their abused kids’ behavior this same way: labeling the kid as bad, rather than examining themselves, or other adults, for culpability, for being the root cause of the kid’s behavior.
Q: At the end of your book it sounded like you felt there were some positive effects from your experience at Straight. Can you describe what you feel was positive about your experience?
A: I wouldn’t phrase it that succinctly, that “there were positive effects from Straight”…rather, I’d phrase it as, “I’ve been able to take a horrific, torturous experience, and use it to enable me to do good.” Subtle difference, but mighty. Nothing good came from Straight. Not for me. Not for thousands of us. However. Because I suffered as I did, and learned so innately what humans are capable of, and how institutional abuse and mind control works, I’m able to help other kids who are in situations with the same dynamics at play. People who haven’t lived it—I’m not sure they can see that mud pie beneath the frosting.
Q: Do you feel that your experience with Straight has caused you to make certain decisions in your life?
A: I’m sure my reclusive nature, the fact that I prefer animals over humans and woods-walks over parties, can be traced to my experience in Straight. I probably wouldn’t be as much of a vocal fighter, on behalf of kids, if I hadn’t been in Straight. And maybe, if I hadn’t lived that bizarre experience, I wouldn’t have felt I had a “big enough” true story to put on paper.
Q: Did you ever reunite with any of your old friends that you weren’t allowed to speak with while at Straight?
A: Haaa! That’s a story for the next-next book, the one after WE CAN’T BE FRIENDS!
Q: I thought it was incredible that you chose a career in helping others. Can you describe your career and your goals?
A: I got a master’s degree in education because I wanted to help those kids who have nobody. All parents in the US are legally obligated to send their kids to school. It’s in urban and alternative school classrooms where I’ve been able to reach those neglected teens.
After 17 years in public schools, I’ve earned certification as a teen life coach, so now I’m working one-on-one with young adults.
Q: Have you been able to interact with or help any parents dealing with a “troubled teen?”
A: Yes, though I tend to spend more time with the kids themselves….
Q: If you could talk with parents who are dealing with a “troubled teen,” what would you say to them?
A: My biggest pieces of advice are always, “Listen to, and trust, your kid.” The behaviors that parents dislike and are alarmed by? Those behaviors are caused by something. If the kid’s running away, why? What is it at home that’s intolerable for the kid? If she’s dating way older guys, same story: what is she trying to have someone “rescue” her from? If he’s taking drugs, he’s doing that to escape something, to feel better about something. Same story with “addictive” video gaming. Same thing with pretty much all of the concerning behaviors: what’s underneath it? What pain is the kid trying to escape? Listen. And trust the kid. Instead of punishment. Because punishment just gives them one more thing to be angry about, to escape from.
Q: Where can readers connect with you? Do you have a website?
A: Oh my god, I’m all over the internet.
I’d like to thank Cyndy Etler for her time and agreement with completing this Q&A.
Cyndy’s new book We Can’t Be Friends will be available later this year. To add this book on Goodreads, just click the cover.
To find Cyndy Etler on Goodreads – Click HERE
To find Cyndy Etler on Amazon. Click HERE