At the age of 16 I was placed in a residential school for troubled kids that was later shuttered by the state of Massachussettes for neglect, child abuse and financial impropriety. You can locate the state’s complaint against the institution online, and though I am glad that the man who profited most from this institution is dead and gone there are former staff members out in the world who are irredeemable pieces of shit, first among them being the troglyditic Arizona sheriff Paul Babeau, a man who almost certainly had sex with one or more students while they were under his care.
Several organizations have designated it as a cult and I can’t say this wasn’t true. The founder of the school lived in a luxurious mansion where he was served extravagant breakfasts by the students who were most able to ingratiate themselves to him. The rest of us lived in dilapidated, freezing dorms and slept in 10×10 rooms in groups of four. If one of the bunkmates was considered a flight risk two of us would have to drag our mattresses onto the floor. One of us would sleep in front of the door and the other would sleep below the window which would be barricaded with portions of the bunk beds. I got used to the shaking of the bed while one of the other students masturbated.
My arrival was traumatic. I had gone from punching my father in a drunken rage to sleeping in a sump to the back of a police car to the psychiatric emergency room of a hospital to this place. Upon my arrival they confiscated my clothes and rifled through my belongings. They took my books. The same for any cassettes or CD’s my mother had thoughtfully packed. They took all my medications. They would be administered by staff. This included a tube of ointment for the terrifying rash I had developed on my crotch from being a drunken runaway who pissed his pants and then lived in them. Later that day a grown woman would apply this to my perineum and penis. I was not allowed to touch it.
I was bereft. I badly wanted to speak to my mother. I was told that I would be allowed to call my parents twice a month and that the phone call would be monitored by the staff. Any complaints about the conditions at the school would be considered to be emotionally unhealthy manipulation and would result in punishment. I was told that I could write to them as I pleased but that any and all correspondence coming into or out of the school would be subject to the same rules and oversight.
I felt profoundly unwell. Nicotine withdrawal isn’t pleasant and neither is withdrawal from caffeine. I don’t think I had been drinking long enough and hard enough to be physically dependent but I could certainly be wrong. The school cared nothing for this. When I woke from a fitful sleep to my second day in this place I sat at the breakfast table with approximately 20 strangers and ate nothing. How could I? What little remained of me after two years of alcohol fueled trauma had been removed from its environment and placed in an impossible situation.
I say impossible because my efforts to obtain information about this place and how it ran were frighteningly effusive and I began to realize that there was an expectation that I stay in this place for as long as it took for me to get well. When I tried to parse out what exactly ‘well’ meant I was met with extremely vague answers until I realized that they themselves didn’t know. It was all up to the man in the mansion’s arbitrary whims which were no doubt heavily informed by his love of money.
We painted his house that summer. In fact we were called ‘zen painters’. The idea was that the labor of painting could be viewed as a type of meditation that would be transformative to those of doing the work. There was even a little butterfly included in the pamphlets. Everything was Zen here. There was a transparent and gross sexual division of labor, and so the young women were called Zen gardeners. The older students who were able to kiss the right asses were called Zen waiters.
This was obviously a bunch of bullshit. We were not trained in any mindfulness techniques, we did not have the concept of Zen explained to us and we did not have any encounters with the luminaries of Zen Buddhism. This was a marketing ploy to appeal to the forward thinking parents desperate to convince themselves that they had done the right thing for their child, so this is what we were called as we labored in direct sunlight with no glasses, no sunscreen and little water.
I played the game as best I could. I thought this was my clearest trajectory out. I worked hard, was cloyingly polite and desperately constructive with my criticisms in the nightly ‘encounter groups’ in which we accused one another of petty infractions of rules, of emotionally unhealthy behavior or of slacking as we performed the forced unpaid work that no one thought to call slavery.
After approximately a month of tears and panic I began to see how the game was run and I began to perform the role of a well-adjusted Desisto School student. I knew who to single out. I participated in just the right amount of verbal bullying to not get bullied myself and I kept my communication with my parents on a very surface level. I wanted to see them and talk to them and if the cost was being dishonest, of not talking about the kid who almost died of lithium poisoning and dehydration, or the girl who had a sexual relationship with a 40 year old teacher, or the building that they called ‘the farm’ then so be it.
As with the actual plants in soil type of farm, at Desisto it was both a noun and a past-tense verb. The farm itself was a one room brick building with a bathroom. Kids were sent there for the most serious infractions, all of which amounted to running away or making plans to do so. Allegedly there were other infractions that could get you placed there, but overwhelmingly it was a punitive measure to discourage flight.
Rumors about what happened to you when you were sent to the farm were manifold- that you were only allowed to eat puffed rice and skim milk, that you wore no underwear under the Dickies suit you were forced to wear, that you could only use the bathroom once a day so that you inevitably were sitting in your own urine- but they all agreed on a single point: That until you confessed to the staff member watching over you an exact and detailed list of your transgressions leading up to and during your escape you would sit in a hardback chair with your knees touching a wall, a position that you were not permitted to move from. No reading, no writing, no talking to the staff. As with any cult there was an appropriation of language: You were ‘cornered’ or ‘chained’ or ‘sheeted’ or subject to a ‘limit structure’ which were all codewords for humiliating psychological torture. Someone who was ‘farmed’ was not to be spoken to on the rare occasions when necessity dictated that they leave their personal hell.
The threat of ending up on the farm was a relatively successful though unimaginative form of torture that scared most of us away from any form of escape that wasn’t into our own minds. It strikes me now, 23 years later, that had there been even the slightest introduction to the ‘Zen’ motif that the sadistic pedophile who ran the school liked to pepper our forced labor with that we may have been better able to endure the farm, to find some peace in the petty and controlling nightmare he had devised. But we were not so lucky.
There was a silly hierarchy that all of us were placed into that was reflected in the dorm to which we were assigned and our position within that dorm. The most recent arrivals were ‘New Boys/Girls’. If you abided by the arbitrary and mercurial rules you would be redesignated as an ‘Alternative Boy/Girl’. From there it was a long grind to the status of ‘Steward’, which conferred upon you both the privilege of living in the mansion and the responsibility of making the lives of those below you more terrible. Steward’s were entrusted with the sacrosanct task of nit-picking every aspect of their underlings behavior and given that they were no more than 18 themselves they could be remarkably petty, a tendency that the rules allowed them to run wild with.
At Desisto School all the internees with the exception of the stewards had to be no more than one arm’s length away from another student and we were required to travel in groups of three. This was called ‘spacing’ and it was as difficult to execute as it sounds. We were expected to adhere to this at all times which made the need to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night a delicate negotiation, as the entire room would need to accompany whoever was unfortunate enough to be the first to give into the need.
While any fair-minded person would be frustrated at the thought of adjudicating departures from this practice the Stewards were generally not fair-minded. This might have simply been an outcome of giving 17 and 18 year-olds the right to declare people in violation of rules and then patting them on the head for doing so. It also might be the case that these kids were taught over the course of several years that their own welfare depended on a willingness to step on the heads of those who were below them on the ladder. Or it might be that only a sociopath can thrive in this sort of environment.
My mood has always existed in a quantum state. I present whatever face seems most advantageous depending on the party observing. I can pass from rage to depression to completely impartial practicality if positioned at the center of a circle of three and made to spin. This was helpful to me in my time at Desisto School. While all these emotional states existed at the same time the one that was given voice in this place was always practicality and this was enough to barely get me up the ladder. I ‘spun’ (another puzzling use of words) into the Alt-boys dorm and after not too long I was the ‘Dorm Leader’, a shitty job in which you were tasked with the responsibility of issuing commands in the daily cleanings and weekend ‘super cleaning’ of our living space. As well, as a dorm leader you needed to use a stopwatch in the shower to enforce the unbreakable and unquestioned tyranny of time. We were permitted thirty second group showers in the morning.
Our bowel movements were monitored as well and I am proud to say that I drew a line on this issue.. While the unpredictable temperament of urine was spared the clock, shitting was another thing entirely. As everyone knows, there is nothing quite like a leisurely sit on a porcelain bowl. With the knowledge that the toilet stall was an invitation to indolence we were permitted no more than 2.5 minutes in which to defecate. This had two outcomes as far as I was able to gauge: You either left the stall with a shitty ass or you mastered the art of the clean drop at the expense of hemorrhoids. I was more inclined to the latter. The fact is that getting a turd out of your asshole with only blood on the paper requires a kind of full-bodied approach in which you spread your asscheeks as far apart as possible and sit on the seat so that it pulls you even further apart. From there it is a matter of expediency, of forcing the feces out as fast as possible so that it made no contact with the rest of your ass.
I oversaw all these things, these petty and fascistic rules that institutions of social control need to exercise. They serve as a kind of thermometer in the turkey of defeat. If the trains are running on time and so on. Of course there was always trouble brewing- another hallmark of petty authoritarianism is the need for an enemy and at Desisto School the enemy was within. While students fleeing the school was never a regular occurrence it did happen periodically and for this I felt both envy and relief that I was not the only one who wanted to get as far away from here as possible. A boy named SK was at once the best and worst at running away ended up in our dorm. While I can’t recollect how many times he had successfully made it off the campus it was enough to summon a deep feeling of respect for him. But whatever the number of successful departures he inevitably arrived back at the school. This is because he wanted to be loved by his parents and live with his family and they refused to have any contact with him, having greedily drank from the Kool-Aid of this ridiculous place.
As part of a young person’s residence at the school (and I use the term ‘school’ loosely as I attended perhaps a week of classroom instruction while there) the parent’s were expected to attend monthly meetings in which Michael Desisto himself appeared to harangue our moms and dads about how deeply manipulated they had been by their children and how this was indicative of the codependent love that was actively destroying their family. On the whole I think my father was far more taken in by this amateurish psychobabble than my mother but nevertheless the months stretched on. I think this might have been where Michael Desisto accomplished a measure of control that many cults aspire to.
There were tremendous dividends to having these meetings. It allowed the parents to imagine that not only were they healing their children, they were healing themselves. And thus was fealty pledged to a shitty little empire ruled by decree of a greedy old man who exercised absolute control over a fiefdom of children engaged in a constant circular firing squad. If a student ran away their parents were supposed to cease all contact and refuse to take calls and to contact all their friends’ parents and the whole extended family and demand that they not provide to their children so much as a porch to crawl under and die.
Obviously this poses a serious danger to the young person. How would a kid, displaced and likely to be unfamiliar with how to access social services survive outside whatever bureaucratic channels runaway and homeless youth are able to access? In SK’s case the answer was getting drunk enough to deal with the realities of trading sex for food and shelter and then doing just that. But he always came back, and I don’t know whether that was the pain of being completely cut-off from his family or a simple need for stability.
No matter the case I respected him. I was so dedicated to leaving this place through the front door that I hadn’t considered the rear. I knew there were deficits in my knowledge of the geographic locale- I had only been off-campus once in the time I was there. As well, I had no real ability to survive, only an ability to endure. Endurance can take you very far but if you don’t get the hang of survival you’re fucked.