The Desisto School Part I

At the age of 16 I was placed in a residential school for ‘troubled teens’ 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 there are former staff members out in the world who are irredeemable pieces of shit, first among them being the troglodytic former Arizona sheriff and Republican congressional candidate Paul Babeau.

Several organizations 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.

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 belongings. Any medications were taken and 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 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 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 would be subject to the same rules and oversight. Any suspect behavior would result in a suspension of any contact with my family.

I felt profoundly unwell. When I woke from a fitful sleep to my second day I sat at the breakfast table with approximately 20 strangers and ate nothing. How could I?

My efforts to obtain information about how the institution operated were rebuffed. I gradually realized that there was an expectation that I would 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 vague answers until I realized that no one really knew. It was all up to the man in the mansion’s 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 doing the work. There was even a little butterfly included in the pamphlets. Everything was Zen here. There was a transparent 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 parents desperate to convince themselves that they had done the right thing for their child.

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 panic I began to see how the game was run and I performed 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 constant rumors of sexual abuse perpetrated by the staff, or the building that they called ‘the farm’, then so be it.

As with the actual ‘plants in soil’ type of farm, it was a noun and an adjective. You could be farmed, or you could go to the farm. 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 I never saw someone sent there for anything other than 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’ (not a very imaginative turn of phrase… you had to sit in a corner) or ‘chained’ (in which you had to be within one arm’s length of another person at all times) or ‘sheeted’ (in which you wore a sheet and underwear and nothing else) or subject to a ‘limit structure’ (which involves one or more other human beings lying on top of you to restrain you). Desisto School was a wellspring of coded language for humiliating psychological torture.

The threat of ending up on the farm was a relatively successful though unimaginative specter of abuse 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.

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. Stewards were entrusted with the sacrosanct task of nit-picking every aspect of their underling’s behavior, and given that they were no more than 18 themselves they could be remarkably petty.

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 (and resent) whoever was unfortunate enough to be the first to give into the need.

While any fair-minded person would be frustrated at having to adjudicate such a 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.

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 overseeing the daily cleanings 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 minute long group showers in the morning.

Our bowel movements were monitored as well. While the unpredictable temperament of urine was spared the clock, shitting was another thing entirely. 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 butthole.

I oversaw all 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. 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. I felt a great sense of relief that I was not the only one who wanted to get as far away as possible. A boy named S was at once the best and worst at running away and he ended up in our dorm. While I can’t recollect how many times he made it off the campus, it was enough to summon feelings of respect. But he inevitably arrived back at the school.

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.

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.

Obviously this poses a serious danger to the young person. How would a kid, displaced and unfamiliar with how to access social services for homeless youth survive? In the case of S the answer was by getting drunk enough to deal with the realities of trading sex for food and shelter. 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.

I respected him. I was so dedicated to leaving 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 far but if you don’t get the hang of survival you’re fucked.

I began to sound S out. He had been there for two years with significant gaps where he lived on the street. He was a wellspring of gossip about the functioning of the school and the infractions of the students. He provided a sort of oral history of the place in which heroes and villains emerged. My favorites were the stories of a notorious boy who had been placed on the farm in the recent past.

Fire Codes were flagrantly ignored by those who ran the school, but somehow, against all reason, the farm had a fire extinguisher. This boy had used it to beat the staff member supervising his misery within an inch of his life. On another occasion he had punched the glass out of a window and opened up his wrists. He was always on the farm. There was no speaking to him but I wished him well. I thought he was braver than the rest of us.

It was through a recounting of the transgressions of others that we evaluated each other. It provided us with plausible deniability. Snitching was embedded in the fabric of life at Desisto school. It was always possible that you would be betrayed. You couldn’t even be angry with the person who sold you out. It was their only way to escape from a corner and have the dubious privileges of a shower and normal food reinstated.


I frequently experience thoughts of suicide. They are rarely actionable and they are rarely fantasies about actually ending my life- these seem to only emerge in my darkest moments. Instead, these they are little snippets of conversation that I imagine occurring between people I know in which they discuss my passing by my own hand. I think this stems from the embarrassment I feel at the state of my life, and a sense that this would be a thing that would put my feelings in the proper context for people, that it would be a full expression of the desperation I feel at the slow drag-along-the-ground that I am experiencing and that I fear will be interminable. 

In my most desperate periods of fear and agitation I have taken myself to the emergency room, towards what purpose I no longer understand, but one must be very careful in these environments. Talk of suicide can get you institutionalized. Ideally, when you visit the emergency room you get a little bit of valium instead of a trip to an institution. 

And an institution is a place to be avoided. Statistically, one is much more likely to commit suicide after release from a mental institution. This is paradoxical at first glance, but makes more sense if one is familiar with the mental health system. A mental hospital is not a place of healing. It is simply a legal obligation on the part of the state to warehouse people with inconvenient or unpleasant thoughts, feelings and behaviors- they don’t provide you with talk therapy, or healing touch, or meaningful assistance with the material problems of your life. While there are pretensions of providing trauma-informed care in most hospitals, it is often the care itself that is traumatizing. Therefor, I am very careful with my statements to the myriad of healthcare professionals with whom I interact in my thus-far futile efforts to turn back into a functional adult person. I don’t talk about these specters of suicidality, lest I end up hospitalized and emerge sicker and more medicated.

It is a strange experience visiting a psychiatric facility for work when I feel so off myself. Certainly, I am doing a bit better than the majority of people committed here, at least on the outside, but not two years ago I was in a partial hospitalization program at this very same facility . They slapped a number of new diagnoses on me related to substance use, drug-tested me and had me participate in a bunch of useless, insulting ‘life skills’ groups. I discharged myself from the program after they played Sweet Home Alabama in music therapy. I can take pointless breathing exercises and stress management worksheets, but I draw the line at singing along to segregationist anthems. I am lucky that I had the choice to discharge- many others do not. 

The patients on the top floor of the hospital are those that are considered the most ill. I don’t know if this is a spatial arrangement that holds true in other facilities. This is the only one I’ve ever been to, excluding the ones that I was committed to as an adolescent, and those are too far in my past to remember. All I really recall of those experiences is the sense of confinement and the fact that the ceilings were covered in pats of butter launched from spoons by bored patients.

Patients on this unit are not infrequently forensic cases, which means they have been committed in lieu of going to a correctional facility if they are found to have been insane at the time that they committed a criminal act. Everyone on the unit is involuntary, and while there are many people at the facility who are being held for emergency evaluations that typically last three days, this is not that type of involuntary. These are people that the state has decided they are going to apply to treat involuntarily, which generally means at least a three month stay. It is rare that I know the particulars of why someone is in the hospital, but occasionally a patient will tell me, will even show me their court paperwork. 

Very rarely, the person in charge of advocacy at the hospital will provide me with some insight into their case and I have generally perceived this to be in the service of biasing me against the patient in some way. There is only one occasion that I can recall in which this was not the case, and it was a passing comment in which she implied that she thought a particular patient did not belong on this top floor unit. Then she hedged and said something about the patient believing she had pinworms, which still doesn’t mean she’s a threat to herself or anyone else (other than being a potential vector for pinworms). 

This unit is the only place in the facility where the staff are friendly to me. I don’t know why this is, and I never asked for fear of changing the dynamic. The degree to which this is helpful in navigating the floor is profound- I can ask who is new, who is having a bad day, and who might want to talk. This is purely for my own convenience. I’ve been burned out on this job since I began- it has never been easy for me to walk up to a stranger who is legally confined and ask if I can help them while knowing that I definitively, absolutely can’t. My role is strictly window-dressing to make the system seem more humane. The things I most frequently do with patients are refer them to their lawyers, refer them to another advocacy organization, or help them fill out the hospital’s own complaint forms, which are frequently ignored (though this is ostensibly illegal) and when they’re not, are responded to with a great deal of victim-blaming and dissembling. The people who generally want to speak with me are too psychotic to realize that I’m useless to them. 

On this occasion though, every staff person I encountered pointed me towards the woman who the patient advocate had mentioned. They said she didn’t belong, that it was a mistake that she was in the hospital to begin with. This is a strong statement considering the sources. My colleagues don’t hold the floor staff in high regard, comparing them to cops and prison guards. I have a hard time lumping them all in like this- certainly some of them are brutal and some of them are dicks but on the whole they are just working class people, and the hospital is a stop along the way to somewhere else. With that being said, there are few of them that would question the logic of involuntary commitment and it is exceedingly rare that they question the premise under which someone is hospitalized.  

After being directed by several staff to intercede on behalf of this person I headed back to the low stimulation area, which is a misnomer. This is a segregated area of the floor where they put all the newly arrived patients and all the people who are loud enough that they’ll disrupt the flow of the unit. It’s a hell of a place to put someone fresh out of the emergency room. There was a young woman crying on one of the impossibly heavy, unthrowable chairs that they furnish the units with. Obviously this was her, the woman that didn’t belong on the unit. I introduced myself and she said what everyone says, which is that she didn’t belong there and that I needed to help her get out. She said that they were already discussing seeking an order to treat involuntarily- to my shame I scarcely understand the process of involuntary commitment, though I have tried at many junctures to get a grasp on how it works, however in my limited understanding, the wheels are already in motion from the moment you arrive in the hospital and they plan on keeping you past a three day observation. 

She’d arrived in the hospital after witnessing her fiance commit suicide with a handgun. She told me very little of this event, just the bare details- that the police had shown up at their house for reasons that weren’t clear to me and that he had walked outside and shot himself in the head. Understandably, her reaction to this trauma was some sort of meltdown, the specifics of which I do not know, and this had somehow landed her on the top floor of the hospital. 

She seemed distressed but lucid- she wanted to get back to her house, she was bereft that she had missed her partner’s funeral, and she was awakening to the fact that she was in a total and austere institution that was not interested in helping her but in holding her. She said she had a job at a nursery to get back to and a cat that might very well be starving to death in her absence. 

I offered to speak with her and her psychiatrist. This never helps, but sometimes it makes people feel like they’re being listened to. I asked her psychiatrist to meet with us and had to explain my role to him. Then he stated bluntly that it was his opinion that she was suffering from drug-induced psychosis. When she tried to ask clarifying questions he accused her of being hostile towards him and stated that he would leave if she interrupted him again. I asked him if he had considered the significant trauma she had experienced in his diagnosis. He told me he didn’t have any more time to talk to us and walked out of the room without excusing himself.  

I sat with the patient in silence for a moment, and then I said that I thought that her psychiatrist was very much an asshole. She agreed. Psychiatrists rotate through this unit every two months because the tiny, rural state this facility is in can’t retain them permanently. Some of them are decent (for psychiatrists), some of them are bad and some of them are worse. This man ranked among the worst. I expressed this to the employees in the low stimulation area and they agreed sincerely. 

On my way to the unit clerk to pick up complaint forms the woman’s social worker pulled me aside. This is always a bad thing. It means either that I am going to be asked to break someone’s confidentiality or that the social worker herself is going to break confidentiality. In this instance it was the latter. She wanted to tell me that though the patient presented well that she was a heroin user and that she was using other drugs- that she had been told by the woman’s sister that she used ecstasy, which according to the social worker was a type of speed that causes psychosis, and that her dead fiance was a well-known heroin dealer in the little town that they were from. I nodded my head through all of this nonsense. 

It was unclear to me what the social worker’s intent was. I doubt that she was unaware of my relative lack of power in the grand scheme of things, so concern that I would get the patient released was an unlikely motive. Sometimes treatment teams interpret advocacy efforts as harmful to the patient’s recovery, as if it somehow perpetuates delusions. Or perhaps she was embarrassed by this particular commitment and wanted to mitigate my judgement of her, her colleagues and the institution as a whole. Either way, I ignored her and  assisted the woman with a complaint in which she requested a new psychiatrist based upon his rude and dismissive behavior, and then we called her attorney to request a preliminary hearing to contest her commitment. 

I visited the unit a few days later. The woman I had worked with was in good spirits- she was braiding the long, tangled hair of one of the other patients and had picked flowers in the courtyard garden and arranged them in styrofoam cups on tables. Her legal aid attorney had secured her a hearing and the hospital was releasing her rather than taking her to court. It is at this point that I made the observation, not for the first time in my life, that relief is better than pleasure, and that there is nothing finer than deliverance from fear- not that it lasts, not that it sustains, but that it is like the finest analgesic regardless. Her release from the hospital would not wash away the image of a loved one killing himself, or relieve her of whatever other struggles would surely plague her the second her medicaid cab ride started driving her towards home, but they were momentarily forgotten with the promise of freedom.

I have tasted this myself at times. Sadly, most of the time the relief doesn’t last and the near miss turns out to have hit you dead on. Sometimes waking from a nightmare is not enough, and the preconditions that gave rise to it don’t just haunt you, they possess you entirely. I would be surprised if this were not the case for this woman, but still, I am glad that she wasn’t robbed of months of her life, that she got to smell flowers rather than disinfectant for the remainder of the short northern summer and that she wasn’t shot full of antipsychotics against her will. I hope she got to visit the grave of her lover and come to some sort of peace with that, although I have my doubts about peace and its presence in our lives.