Dead, Insane, or in Jail: A CEDU Memoir
Dyke, VA: Not With the Program, Publisher, 2015
With assist of Chenille Books for editing and publishing
Paperback, 299 pages
Review by Joseph Szimhart (October 2016)
Brutal therapy for teen meets pulp fiction is my initial impression after reading Zack Bonnie’s memoir. More than brutal therapy, the Rocky Mountain Academy in a remote panhandle region of Idaho was an example of many such therapeutic boot camps yet operating that combine inept staff and quasi-militaristic culture. The camps purport to strip away bad beliefs and behaviors to get to the pure “me” from which a new self can emerge. An RMA parent handbook stated: “Raps are generally 3.5 hours in length, occur 3 times a week and are designed to facilitate personal growth…” That was in 1988 when fourteen-year-old Zack Bonnie’s parents signed him into an “emotional growth program” at a CEDU branch in Idaho. Personal growth may have been the goal, but the author exposes something more like a teenager learning to cope emotionally while sequestered in a psychologically abusive environment.
CEDU doubles as a neologism for see-do or we can help you see what and who you really are and show you how to behave after you do. The roots of Bonnie’s CEDU in Idaho were in Synanon, a rehab cult founded by Charles “Chuck” Dederich (1913-1997). Synanon started on $33 in 1958 and grew into a multi-million dollar enterprise. Early in its development, Synanon was popularly regaled as a great breakthrough in addictions treatment but fame, power, illegal financial dealings, criminal behavior and unethical social control eventually brought it down. Synanon gained infamy on anti-cult activist lists by the mid-1970s. Lawsuits and ex-member complaints eventually brought Dererich’s empire to legal reckoning. For many members, there was no way out but escape as Dederich came to teach that once an addict, always an addict and the only salvation was to remain in his program for life. One Synanon client, Mel Wasserman, founded the first CEDU organization in 1967 borrowing Synanon’s in your face, ego-busting style. Bonnie writes that CEDU was acquired by Brown Schools, Inc. in 1998. Brown Schools and CEDU declared bankruptcy in 2005. Some of the CEDU schools were reopened by Universal Health Services as behavioral health centers.
According to Bonnie, Rocky Mountain Academy staff “tried to get us to go off the deep end. Then they could say or do anything to you. If they threw you out, they assured us, you’d be dead, insane, or in jail [thus, the title]. If you split, and went to a lock-up, or perhaps a mental institution, your life was over” (97). The author did “split” once from RMA only to find a ride hitchhiking with a lurid, scraggly fellow in a pick-up truck. In the truck’s cab, Bonnie had to endure a sexual proposition by the driver who tightly gripped the teen’s leg with one hand while he masturbated with the other. Bonnie fled his first ride, then made it to Seattle airport with the help of nicer people. A collect call to his parents to please fly him home only got him into custody with a sheriff who delivered Bonnie to a wilderness survival program. Bonnie had to endure 25 days hiking around the “Mojave” Desert in Southern Idaho with sparse provisions. He was the youngest member of the group run by SUWS or the School of Urban and Wilderness Survival. Other RMA runaways ended up there as well. The last quarter of the narrative is about his experience with SUWS and how he lost a lot of weight but did learn to start a fire with primitive tools. Then he learned that his parents would force him to return to RMA. Those next grueling 30 months or so are the topic of a forthcoming book in the series.
Others have published reviews of this book with most favorably commenting on the author’s courage and honesty. There are a few who still claim that the CEDU experience for their teen was beneficial and perhaps some teens, now adults, praise their CEDU experience for helping them to become better people. This is not unusual. The nastiest of cults have their advocates who might claim that the cult experience saved their lives or continues to inform the truth for them. What does come across clearly in Bonnie’s treatment is that this was precisely the wrong approach for someone with attention deficit and anxiety as a misfit kid.
Bonnie may have been a handful to raise due to his disobedience to rules, smoking, indiscriminate sex with girls, and habit of running away and ditching school. His well-off, frustrated parents enrolled him in an expensive boarding school at age 13 in Pottstown, PA. I grew up in Pottstown, so I knew The Hill School very well. While in high school, I competed against The Hill in tennis and scrimmage football. Lately I have exhibited art and curated a show at The Hill School gallery. Bonnie lasted only a month there under its strict rules, getting kicked out for insubordination and smoking. He did not get caught for smoking pot with a fellow student. Nevertheless, his parents had enough and signed him into RMA out of exasperation, it seems. Bonnie offers this view of his errant youth for readers to better understand where CEDU-type retraining programs get their clients.
I mentioned that this book reads like pulp fiction because we are not spared vulgar language and raw yuck stories about sex, drugs, and bad behavior that emerged in the hours-long encounter sessions or “raps.” An elite RMA session called a “Truth propheet” (sic) began with pithy quotes from The Prophet by Khalil Gibran. A Truth propheet included bizarre human “smoosh circles.” These were human chains wherein a teen would lay his or her head on another’s tummy or thigh, linking up this way around the floor, stroking a partner’s face or hair as people shared intimate stories. Many were reduced to tears. Spent tissues littered the area. I had an image of Freud’s couch in group therapy without the couch. This quirky smoosh eroticism was attended by a strict rule or “agreement” that no sexual contact or flirting was allowed. (Oddly, smoking was allowed, so Bonnie continued his nicotine habit).
Breaking an “agreement” got the teen placed on “bans” which meant no talking or communicating with anyone except during program rap sessions. We learn that some teens began to exaggerate or even lie as Bonnie did to better fulfil the requirements of the authoritarian program directors. Loud, “snot ripper” songs including some by Barbra Streisand and from the film Chariots of Fire played repeatedly to drive emotions to tears during all these sessions. Nearly all self-transformational mass therapy cults have played loud “snot ripper” recordings.
This is a provocative book. Bonnie effectively conveys his story as if told at age fourteen while interspersing mature commentary after decades of recovery. I came away from my reading feeling that I needed a psychological shower to wash away the vulgarity and a stiff drink to quell my anger that these bogus rehabs are allowed to operate. I have encountered many young people (in the intake area of the psych hospital where I have worked since 1998) recently emerged from a teen boot camp, not unlike a CEDU program. Most were feeling suicidal when I met them for a variety of reasons beyond surviving a boot camp, but all told similar stories as Bonnie’s. Despite their psychological disorders (depression, anxiety, ADHD, social phobia, substance use disorders) to the person they described their sequestered boot-camp experience as a “cult” that used “brainwashing.”
In the end, Bonnie offers what he found to be useful sources including works by Margaret T. Singer and Robert J. Lifton. He recommends Alliance for the Safe, Therapeutic & Appropriate Use of Residential Treatment (ASTART) and International Cultic Studies Association (ICSA). Bonnie maintains a website deadinsaneorinjail.com where one can go for notification of Book 2. Today, Zack Bonnie advertises himself as an actor, a tournament gambler, and an avid hiker who lives in Virginia. He wants to contribute to research that exposes what happens to the brains of youth in sequestered “emotional growth” camps.