Editor’s Note: This is the first in a five-part series from Marcus Chatfield, a regular contributor to Points. Here he continues his examination of Straight, Inc., the controversial adolescent drug treatment program that existed from 1976 to 1993.
In 2011, I obtained a 31-page report, entitled, An Examination of Straight Incorporated (1981, unpublished), from the Carlton Turner collection in the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library Archives. Written by Canadian psychiatrist, Dr. Andrew I. Malcolm, and his wife Barbara, their favorable assessment of Straight’s controversial methods was an important endorsement during the early stages of Straight’s national expansion.
Along with the Malcolms’ report, I obtained several correspondences between Straight executives and White House officials, describing preparations for Straight’s national expansion and some of their efforts to promote the program in the midst of widespread criticism. One of the reasons Straight was able to franchise its operations across the United States, while simultaneously fighting a growing reputation for abuse, is that the program’s public image was constantly nurtured by White House endorsements during the Reagan and Bush administrations.
Straight’s directors invited the Malcolms’ examination because “it was likely” they would “submit an objective and unbiased report and that Straight, as a result, might benefit from [their] observations” (p. 1). The Malcolms’ expertise in drug use, their knowledge of cults, and their lack of involvement with Straight lent authenticity to their endorsement, which was presented to potential donors in a promotional package. Straight’s directors developed this “Solicitation Presentation” (p. 17-18) hoping to raise 18.2 million dollars (p. 16) for the construction of 26 new facilities over a five-year period – 1982 to 1986. “We suspect that money is going to be forthcoming, from diverse sources, for a programme as enlightened and as nationally necessary as is that of Straight,” the Malcolms proclaimed in their endorsement letter (p. 36-37).
This national expansion project was first announced by former White House Drug Czar and former director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, Dr. Robert DuPont, on February 6, 1981, at a formal press conference held at Straight’s first “satellite” facility in Sarasota, Florida. “People here have what I call a “technology” for reversing drug habits,” said DuPont, “I have taken it upon myself to do what I can to expand it nationally.” A year later, Florida State Attorney James A. Gardner began to uncover widespread abuse at the Sarasota facility. Newspapers reported that it was his year-long criminal investigation, that included 300 pages of testimony by 50 former clients, parents and staff members, that led to the 1983 closing of Straight’s operation there. The Sarasota clients were moved back to Saint Petersburg and apparently, because Straight voluntarily closed its operation there, no criminal charges were filed. However, several clients sued the program or were settled out of court.
The Saint Petersburg program, operating since 1976, was widely criticized but safe from criminal prosecution while under the jurisdiction of a “friendlier” State Attorney, James T. Russell. After three separate state agencies investigated and corroborated numerous accounts of abuse, widespread civil rights violations and multiple administrative violations in the St. Petersburg program, an investigation by Russell resulted in no action. Florida state officials indicated that Russell went on to ignore all subsequent official reports of abuse in the Saint Petersburg program. Between 1979 and 1982, Florida Health and Rehabilitative Services official, Terry Harper, who monitored Straight for more than three years, sent “three or four packets” of complaints involving allegations of abuse at Straight to Russell’s office during that time but “received no response.”
The Malcolms arrived at the Saint Petersburg, Florida facility in August, six months after Dr. DuPont announced Straight’s national expansion. In preparation for their six-day visit, they spoke with DuPont, who, they said, had “expressed much interest in the program.” He told them that certain aspects of the program had been criticized in the past and he “felt that an appraisal of these elements was especially needed” (p. 1). The Malcolms were more specific: they report that they were given
the distinct impression that it was because of criticism from various quarters asserting that the Straight programme brainwashed the participants that [they] were consulted (p. 4).
The Malcolms prepared a list of research questions based on their conversation with DuPont: Does Straight engage in brainwashing? Is Straight sadistic? Is Straight a cult? Does Straight turn out zombies? Can Straight be transplanted?
Andrew Malcolm, M.D., became interested in cults and “brainwashing” in the mid-1960s while working at the Addiction Research Foundation (ARF) in Toronto. As ARF executives were drawn into the Human Potential Movement and began to commit themselves to Organizational Development seminars in “Sensitivity Training,” Malcolm devoted himself to learning about “brainwashing” and the dangers inherent to these intensive group methods. His book, The Tyranny of the Group (1973), is a critique of such “Encounter Groups,” giving historical context for understanding these methods and showing how “brainwashing” has been used in Communist thought-reform, corporate training seminars, therapeutic communities, and emotional growth centers. In the early 1970s, he would have been one only a few critics who spoke out about the potential for harm in these techniques, saying they are all “designed to control behavior, and achieve this end by bringing about the suspension of those mental processes that are essential for rational thought” (from the preface). It seems he would have been well-aware of the potential for harm in Straight’s methods, and he does give some warning about “belt-looping” and minor abuses of power that could happen in the future, but his concern about psychiatric casualties, mentioned in The Tyranny of the Group, is not mentioned in the report:
It does not do any damage to these children to be admitted to Straight for a period of a few weeks or months; and after that they are either discharged because they are utterly unwilling to participate or they recognize that the programme might even help them, and they decide to stay on (p. 28).
Check back next week for Part 2. Chatfield’s series will run every Thursday.