Insider's View

Insider's View

A Much Needed Look at the "Teen-Help" Industry by Kyrsten E. Bean

A Review of "Help At Any Cost" by Maia Szalavitz

I was interviewed by Maia for this book, and because of this received an early copy. When I read the book, it took me a while because it is a very heavy, traumatizing subject matter and it brought back many memories of methods used in the program I attended myself. The book is very informative and supports the actions of helpful websites such as It also discusses the different methods of thought control or coercion used in these programs further outlined in books such as "Cults in Our Midst" by the late Margaret Singer.

I found that after reading this book I wanted to catch up on seven years of articles concerning the program and found, in retrospect, that there are now many things lacking in a program I once believed had "saved my life".

Although I find it time consuming and devastating to try and rethink about everything I was taught to believe while in the program, this book led me to reconsider my perspectives, which were in favor of the program I attended in 1997.

The program pitted me against my own parents on the issue of graduating the required TASKS seminars. My parents are known for having left the controversial seminar they attended and have publicly spoken out concerning this seminar.

I also received a much appreciated follow-up on the people who were in the same 48 hours documentary which aired in October of 1998 that my family appeared on when I was removed from the program in March of that year.

I wanted to give this book to everyone I knew, so that they could understand things I couldn't put into words before, but now after calming down a bit, because the expose caused quite a rise in me and even stirred me to anger at the injustices children like Aaron Bacon had to endure, I realize that, unfortunately, not everyone will want to explore such a terrifying subject.

I found the book extremely informative, and I thought that Maia efficiently used her research to link programs from Synanon to The Seed to STRAIGHT, Inc. and then on to the burgeoning industry of teen-help programs now being marketed for teens which do not disclose their methods and which also encourage parents to attend program "seminars" in which tactics used to "break you down" and "build you up" are used to create rapid change. She outlines this more thoroughly in her book.

The most disconcerting part for me is that the long-term effects of these programs have not been documented or studied and are in most part anecdotal. I am worried about the potential for PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome) in teens and have found personally that once removed from a program such as this, life does not fit into the binary perspective the program instills in you.

The other disturbing part is how many programs are in the same names of people who ran previous programs shut down for child abuse and other issues, and how they continue to evade any consequences for their actions.

I believe in the case of the program I attended (in Jamaica) the staff was genuinely trying to help me as I was a problematic child. The problem is that many of these staff no longer work for the program, and I am left to wonder if the tactics they were using were used because they honestly felt they were "helping", if they were simply uneducated on what processes they were engaging in at the encouragement of the seminar facilitators and people more largely in influence behind the scenes, or if they were simply used because they knew that the "coercive persuasion" or "encounter group" seminars would produce quick results as they draw from tactics more commonly know as brainwashing. These results were incumbent on graduating four seminars and staffing many other seminars, even after graduation of the program was complete.

Because children are sent to these programs and told that this is the only way their parents will accept them back into their families, they conform to it's values without questioning, trusting their parents know what is happening to them and are thoroughly educated on the matter (although this is not always the case, it was the case with me).

The long term effects of being changed through subtle and not-so-subtle methods and reshaped in the form of the program are not known and have reportedly led to many psychological problems in people detained in these programs. If a child has no reason to question, they will adopt the new values and beliefs of the program without questioning and then will often find that these new belief systems don't hold up in real life under close scrutiny.

They may even find, like I did, that there is no similar structure in society and that they are flailing, searching for something to take it's place and eventually even turning back to the same behaviors which they were sent to the program with, only worse. And this is assuming they even had problems with drugs and other such behaviors when they were sent to these programs. Often times, teens are told that since they are in the program, they are "meant to be there" because they had to have done something to deserve being there, even if in reality, they have not done anything out of line and it is merely a custody battle between parents or faulty judgment on their part concerning proper diagnosis. Even if the children have done something mild, such as smoking a joint or sneaking out of the house, they are told, once in these programs, that they are "liars", "master manipulators", "attention-whores" and other such lump-all terms. Obviously, if they ended up being sent there, they deserved it. This is called "mystical manipulation".

A very well-researched book, definitely it is heavily weighed in opposition to these programs but with rightful cause, as the returns aren't all in on the consequences of sending children away to unregulated "schools" with unlicensed "counselors" and "educators". What returns we do have are shocking.

The flyers parents are handed when referred to these programs often do not reflect the reality of the living circumstances and staff employed therein. Parents, however, are told to ignore any protests they receive from their children; that they are only "manipulating" in order to try to get home. Even if the children really are being abused, the parents are told to ignore this; it's simply a lie because the teens want to manipulate the parents into sending them home.

Although some teens do try to manipulate their way home, many are just telling the truth, and because of the disintegrating relationship they have had in the past with their parents, they are not trusted and these programs justify and capitalize on this loophole, or catch 22.

There are many more issues discussed and outlined in the book, and some solutions are given.

Not every child who misbehaves needs a "behavior modification" or "therapeutic" community. These terms themselves are misleading. Research before you ever send your children away, especially to a "wilderness camp" or a foreign country outside of U.S regulation.

Check out credentialed websites aimed at educating consumers (as these are consumer businesses selling a "product"; your reformed child) before you invest. Don't take in the returns after the fact.

I hope this book will aid parents in educating themselves before the fact, and that it will help people who have survived these programs, healthy or unhealthy, connect the pieces.

Many children have lost their lives unduly because parents, unfortunately, were uninformed and trusted individuals who weren't to be trusted, with their children's safety.

Added Later

When I posted this review, I didn't want to mention much about my own personal experiences. Now I am livid. I remember a boy coming over to Tranquility Bay from his program (which has now been shut down) in Samoa. "You're lucky over here," he said, "you don't get duct-taped and beaten".

I am lucky, I thought as I waited in line for food, raising my hand so that I could sit, talk or stand. "I'm lucky," I thought, as I was praised in TASKS seminars for giving "feedback" to my peers such as "you're a user, a manipulator, a drama-queen, you just want men to want you, etc." As I beat a towel against that wall that was supposed to reflect how angry I was at my parents, as I fake-screamed to show my "rage" and what they'd done to me in order to please the large, bespectacled group facilitator.

My first experience of "group" where we girls sat in a circle and "shared" our "experience" was one of complete shock. I was staring at the mountains and the sky, watching a bird fly over head, when the group facilitator, whom I had trusted, launched into me. "So, how are you, Kyrsten?" I explained my thoughts about beauty and change. All at once, hands shot up into the air. "You're not paying attention, you're avoiding, you're a master manipulator, you're a liar." My peers faces were angry with accusation. I knew in my heart I wasn't lying, and they were acting completely irrationally.

Another such experience came when a girl I had gone to the hospital with entered the program. One of my friends, she said, had killed herself. Tears started pouring down my face. I hadn't cried in months. In group the next day, I decided to voluntarily share how upset I was. One by one, the girls launched into me yet again. "You're lying, you're just avoiding how you really feel by focusing on the suicide, you're feelings aren't real." And so it went. My feelings weren't real. People could judge my character just by looking at me, they said. They knew me. Without ever having known me. I was criticized for writing eloquently. "You're avoiding" they would say, demeaning my poetic descriptions of how I felt, required written work for the seminars.

I am so lucky I was resilient, that I could change myself to suit their needs until my parents pulled me out. My journal of the first month in the program reflects what's really going on. My fear. The sense of being trapped. The completely arbitrary rules.

After three months, my journal entries were laced with program jargon. A binary happiness I had to adapt to fit in. To move up in the program.

I am livid. We will tell our stories. You may have managed to use Communist techniques to brainwash us into temporary conformity, but we are not silent anymore.