the $traight therapeutic program

by Wesley Fager (c) 2000

See, that term was used in the classic therapeutic community starting with Synanon  and Phoenix House  and all those other old fashioned ones where they tore everybody down with the idea that Phoenix will rise from the ashes. I happen to have strong ethical and emotional objections to that kind of therapy. I donít think you strip people down.
             Father Doctor V. Miller Newton, Straightís former national clinical director

The Straight Therapeutic concept was developed in California at Synanon  Foundation (later a dangerous and bizarre church)  and was perfected at a synanon for kids-only in Fort Lauderdale called The Seed.    The only scientific  data available show Synanon  Church's success rate to be dismal.  Besides keeping a few people off of drugs,  Synanon Church was a place of wife swapping, child abuse,  mass sterilizations  and brutal violence.  The Seed was an early imitator of the synanon therapeutic method which closed down after the U.S. Senate likened its methods to Northern Korean brainwashing.   Melvin and Betty Sembler are two of the wealthiest inhabitants of Pinellas County Florida.  They had one of their own children in the Saint Petersburg Seed treatment facility.  Despite the sordid history of Synanon Church and the allegations of brainwashing at The Seed,  the program was what Melvin and Betty Sembler felt affluent white American children needed and so they developed their own Seed-like program which they called Straight, Inc.  Within a year a half dozen directors left  amidst allegations of child abuse.  One of those directors announced that Straight was worse than The Seed.   Here is the program which Mel and Betty further perfected and used their considerable wealth and political influence,  plus business acumen,   to  spread their project into the wealthier  neighborhoods across America.  

On April 22, 1976, six months after The Seed-St Pete closed on October 12, 1975, a group of former Seed parents and clients founded Straight-St Pete in St Petersburg, Florida. Straight used Chinese communist brainwashing techniques to try to tear a kid down psychologically and then rebuild him with new attitudes. The entire program is right out of Synanon--operating out of warehouses, "you canít con a con", "peer pressure got you on drugs, only positive peer pressure can get you off", vaginal/anal body searches, "addicts helping addicts" and "kids helping kids",  and sexual confessions.  Straight kids are allowed no contact with the outside world whatsoever. No TV, no books, newspapers, magazines, phone calls, visitors. They can not even speak with their own parents until they earn the right. This may  take three months or longer. Realizing that the kid must eventually talk to his parents, Straight often attempts to cajole, threaten, trick or beat a kid into verbally admitting to some sexual deviation or indulgence--whether real, imagined, or fabrication. The kid is coaxed or otherwise made to write a statement in his own handwriting describing his sexual aberrations/exploits and to sign it.   Destructively, the confessions were often read aloud in the peer Group of 200 other boys and girls--stripping many kids of their feelings of worth as a man or woman,  and perhaps driving many to suicidal thoughts and attempts--as we shall see momentarily.  Many Straight clients have  no drug problem at all. Many clients are forced or cajoled into admitting drug usage they had never done.     There  are reports that Straight has failed to report incidences of incest in  families as required by state laws.  Alleged reports of incest may be prove to be true or false.  Why has Straight been slow to report allegations  of incest?   In other words why would Straight  want to keep data on children who have allegedly had sex with a parent but not tell state officials?  The program has the sexual confessions,  the parents continue to pay money.   What would you tell your mom knowing someone had some embarrassing data about you?  What would you tell a district attorney?    Since Straight specialized in admitting affluent white kids,  many of the kids' parents have high-level security clearances.  Have the written confessions been safe-guarded?  Are parents of kids who have signed Straight confessions security risks?  Could an unscrupulous Straight official sell the confessions of the child a high-level government worker to a Communist Chinese intelligence officer?       

Open Meetings.   At Straight a parent  turns  his child over to the program,  never to see him except from across a room on Friday nights,   while the parent spends his week working or otherwise spending all of his time either taking care of the Straight foster children who sleep in his house,  or doing speaking engagements or otherwise raising money for the cult.   Parents spend two exhausting evenings a week at Straight:  Monday and Friday evenings.  There are  no excuses for being late or for missing a meeting.  As you walk in the door you  see a bronze statue,  almost life-size,  of a "druggie" kid in trouble with a Straight oldcomer standing beside him with his supporting arm around him.  It would remind you of being at Boys Town.  Nearby on the wall there's  the letter from a young man attending West Point thanking Straight for getting his life back together.  You are  given back issues and the current issue of Straight's glossy newsletter whose name tells it all:  EPIDEMIC.   You will  be shown  Vol. 6,  on front page,  the title  SUICIDE Teenage Suicide: Symptom or Disease accompanied by a picture of a hand gun.  It's an article about a young man who had shot himself but was now in recovery at Straight.  Inside is a  two-page picture spread of a teenager stretched out on a bed,  dead--a bottle of pills laying beside him.  There's an article by a Pinellas County Sheriff on teen suicide and another by Straight-Springfield's research director Dr. Richard Schwartz on teen suicide.   You might be shown Vol. 10 which shows  on the front page  a big glossy photo of a kid in a morgue with a white body-tag on his toe declaring "cocaine, crack & kids."    They might give you  Vol  4,  the Special Edition welcoming Nancy Reagan back to Straight upon her visit to Straight --Cincinnati,  and see all kinds of photos of the former First Lady at Straight including a picture of her at an Open Meeting sitting besides a well-groomed and handsome boy wearing a coat and tie on her left and a very cute and petite black girl in a neat white dress on her right.  (Straight had 800 stewdents in four facilities in those days with perhaps as many as three blacks.  Interestingly,   perhaps the only black kid in the entire Cincinnati camp was sitting next to  Nancy Reagan!)    Canadian psychiatrist Andrew I. Malcolm is quoted in bold print as saying,  "Straight seemed to us to be phenomenal.  We have been involved in drug programs . . . but we have never seen a program that seemed so intelligently designed . . .  Straight,  we are inclined to suspect, is going to be recognized, eventually, as a national resource."    You might be given Vol. 11 with pictures of Vice President Bush and Barbara at a Straight Open Meeting.   Or they might show you issue No. 1 in which a mother tells you she thought her child had only used pot and alcohol until she got him into Straight and found out that  he had used "pot, alcohol,  hash, hash oil, Tai stick, Rush, LSD, inhalants of all kinds, and "every kind of prescription medication he could get his hands on."   Next you would buy diner from meals donated  by newcomer parents,  proceeds going to Straight,  then sing songs--Row, Row Row Your Boat,  God Bless America,  Three Blind Mice.     For the first three weeks newcomer parents  attend the Six New Parent Raps developed by Father Doctor V. Miller Newton who  received a  Phd from  Union University  (an alternative university where you don't actually have to attend classes or take periodic exams)  for his work on these Raps.   The classes are taught to parents by children counselors, adult counselors and by other parents.  Parents learn the 12 Steps of AA and learn how to write a  rigidly formatted daily confessional or diary called a moral inventory or MI.  Most important parents are taught how to talk to their child at MIC Talk and are instructed to use one of the 50 or so Father Newton supplied  "feeling" words as opposed to "thought" words.  But most importantly parents are taught how to talk to their child once their child earns TALK.  They are taught to use a scripted session to describe a past "druggie" event in their child's life and to select one of Newton;s feeling words to describe how it made them feel.  They are instructed to NEVER ask about current events in the program or to ask about someone who is not present.   

Friday night is Open Meeting where everyone in the cult meets in a great room. Kids on one side, parents on the other. Parents shout indictments at their kids via a microphone in a session called Mic Talk.  Periodically newcomers are made to give an introduction on a wireless microphone to the parent Group. Typically the newcomer has been pressured into confessing to a long list of drug use and his scripted spiel sounds like this: "My name is Bob.  The drugs Iíve used are marijuana, alcohol, LSD, PCP, uppers, downers, Freon, crystal methane, mushrooms, trash drugs, over the counter, crack, cocaine, inhalants, and heroin."  Two weeks ago Bob's parents placed him into Straight.  His hair had been long,  he wore Led Zepplin tee shirts,  his grades were lagging.   Bob has probably drunk beer and  smoked pot, and perhaps  snorted cocaine once or twice at a party.   Some Bobs have used more drugs,  some have used less or none at all,  but the confessions are all the same endless list of drug use.  Many of the girls add on that they have been sexually active.  When Bob's parents brought him in they assumed he had drunk some beer they way they had done when they were teenagers or maybe even smoked a few joints.  But now they are dumb-founded.  They keep looking at the  pictures of dead kids.  They hear their child's confession.  They look at the endorsements by President Bush and Nancy Reagan.  They are convinced that their child would be dead by now had it not been for Mel and Betty Sembler and they'll do any thing for them.    Many Bobs are the kid brother of a Straight stewdent who has just turned 12 and has been admitted to Straight himself.  Though making good grades,  though his time has been  completely filled with Straight,  two weeks later he is saying,  "My name is Bob, the drugs Iíve used are marijuana, alcohol, LSD, PCP, uppers, downers, Freon, crystal methane, mushrooms, trash drugs, over the counter, crack, cocaine, inhalants, and heroin."   In 1973 Lt. Mac Vines of the Saint Petersburg Police Department, later its chief of police, said he agrees 80% with what The Seed is doing. Only problem, itís "too secretive" and "some youngsters appeared to be confessing to drug habits they didnít have." He says he heard one kid confess to using so much stuff, that if he did it, "he would have been horizontal." Yet both he and Raymond Waymire, who would be acting police chief before Vines got the job and would be a founding director for Straight, admitted to a reporter, that if a kid flees The Seed they will pick him up and return him there. [St. Petersburg Times, 9/16/73, section D.]

Total Control.   After a few months (but often longer)  a Straight thought reform student which I call stewdent from the original Synanize (Straight calls a Phasor)  might earn TALK. The parents finally meet their child who is always accompanied by a program official for a staged 5 minute session. Each parent recites, as he has been trained to do, from a rote script about a time in his childís "druggie past" and how it "made him feel." Next the child recites his own script about an incident in his "druggie past" and "how it made him feel." And thatís it. The meeting is over. Even if the child has been beaten or raped he can not report it during TALK--his only time to speak to his parents. Even if their child has a black eye, has lost considerable weight, or has sores on his face from receiving "spit therapy", the parents are not allowed to ask about his present condition.

Talking behind one's back  is another form of effective control. It is strictly forbidden in the cult for parents, clients, siblings and staff members to speak of a person who is not present, period.   Thus if a kid or a parent knew of an incident of abuse, he could not discuss it with a judge or the police as this would be talking behind one's back.[a]    Upon graduation Straight kids join the Seventh Step Society and only associate with graduate members. Many are encouraged to stay as low paid junior counselors. Relationships with the opposite sex are forbidden during treatment which might last two years though there are stories of children in Father Newtonís KIDSí cult who were in treatment for over five years,   and for six months after graduation.     Penalty for dating--back to First Phase. Many junior counselors live under constant fear of being placed back in the program at Phase I.

Interim notes
[a] Edward Hunter invented the term "brainwashing" in his 1951 book Brainwashing in Red China, the Calculated Destruction of Menís Minds. On page 193 he excerpts the following from a captured Communist document: "What is meant by backbiting, or criticizing behind oneís back? . . . Some comrades have something to say about other comrades, but they never speak out openly. They always talk behind one's back . . . then this can be called criticizing behind oneís back, which is prohibited by the Party."  On page 61 of Dr. Newton's PhD thesis on Straight he lists the Fourth Handout to the New Parent's Raps,  Rule 4:  No talking behind anyone's back,  staff,  families, or clients,  by name or inference,  neither positive, negative, nor neutral comments.  He lists Rule 17:  Parents should leave promptly after Open Meetings and raps.  No parking-lot gossip.


Mind Control and Parents. Parents publicly indict one another in bi-weekly synanons (a Synanon Pull-up) with each indictment, regardless how brutal, followed by "but I love you".  And in extended synanons called Parent Weekend. Parent Weekend is based on a special implementation of the Synanon Game called The Trip. In The Trip Dederich had tried to emulate, without using drugs, the enlightenment he had experienced on an LSD trip. The Trip is a long weekend retreat consisting of sleep deprivation, group psychotherapy, Ouija Board sessions, and screaming synanons. During Parent Weekend husbands and wives are forbidden from having sex--or even from holding hands. During Parent Weekend parents are led around by their belt loops like their children are in the program and are allowed to go to the bathroom only at specified periods and only when carried by their belt loop by an oldcomer.   Alba Murphy,  a parent in the Sembler-based synanon called SAFE, reported this experience at Parent's Weekend.  Parents had to go to these things for a weekend where they were treated like clients (inmates). Once a mom sat in group and wet her pants after repeatedly requesting permission to go to the bathroom and being denied. If the parents who were adults could be so controlled, and they even had the option of just walking out, I shudder to think how a 12 yr. old would feel.  Many parents break down during the various day-long rap sessions where they are alternately yelled at, give confessions, tell humorous stories, or are led psychologically back in time in group hypnosis sessions to their own childhood. 

Local parents spend every Monday and Friday evening at the compound--no exceptions. Weekdays are spent taking stewdents to/from the facility, taking stewdents on medical calls, feeding them, washing their clothes, having family raps. It is forbidden to leave the area without the cultís permission. In-town parents with stewdents in their homes  are forbidden to have visitors including friends, ministers, aunts and uncles, neighbors and grandparents,  unless they are interviewed and approved by cult officials. Many out-of-town parents are talked into uprooting and moving near the compound. In-town parents are expected to open their homes to several out-of-town parents and their children, in addition to the program foster children they care for, on the weekends that out-of-town parents must be present. Weekends are also spent doing fund raising for the cult.  At home kids are forbidden from discussing what happened at the program that day as that would almost always entail  talking behind backs

This web page is offered as a public service and as an educational resource to those interested in learning about the potential dangers of abusive Sembler-based synanons.   The page is the on-line publishing arm of the Oakton Institute for Cultic Studies.