Editor’s Note: This is the fifth in a five-part series from Marcus Chatfield, a regular contributor to Points. Here he offers a timeline of key events and news articles in the history of Straight, Inc., the controversial adolescent drug treatment program that existed from 1976 to 1993. Thank you Marcus for bringing this series to Points!
November, 1980 – Opening Day,Sarasota facility.
1/4/1981 – Sarasota Herald-Tribune begins series on Straight, featuring Dr. Robert DuPont (White House Drug Policy Advisor for Presidents Nixon and Ford, and former Director of NIDA), and his sense of urgency about preventing marijuana use.
8/5/81 – Betty Sembler (wife of Straight’s founding president, Mel Sembler) letter to Carlton Turner (White House Drug Policy Advisor), confirming his future participation in the “Awareness Program” and inviting him for dinner with Dr. DuPont in Washington, D.C. (p. 1).
Editor’s Note: This is the fourth 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.
Carlton Turner visited (p. 7) the Saint Petersburg facility, two months after Andrew and Barbara Malcolm. He attended a Friday night “Open Meeting” on October 16, 1981 and soon after that visit, Straight’s National Director, James Hartz, asked Turner to write an endorsement letter for their Solicitation Presentation:
As you know from our telephone conversation, STRAIGHT, INC. is developing strategies for expanding our base in the search for funding. At the moment we are preparing an informative brochure to submit to those foundations, corporations, and individuals from whom we are requesting financial support. Enclosed is an outline illustrative of the type of information to be included. As soon as the brochure is completed, we will forward a copy to you. One of the most important facets of our presentation will be letters of support. We have already obtained permission from Dr. DuPont and Dr. Malcolm, who are forwarding their letters to us. The impact of a package such as ours is perceptibly enhanced by this type of verification. We are, of course, well-known in the areas in which we are located but a communication from you would substantially strengthen our credibility with those unfamiliar with our program and accomplishments (p. 15).
As the lawsuits and bad press accumulated during the years of expansion, this “perceptual enhancement” would become more and more important to Straight’s directors. As the ACLU was investigating the Atlanta program, within 6 months of its opening there, Robert DuPont (p. 1399) and Carlton Turner (p. 22) arranged for Nancy Reagan to visit the Saint Petersburg program, apparently in a show of solidarity. When Straight was (briefly) “cleared” of wrongdoing in Ohio and Georgia, James Hartz, wrote to Turner thanking him for his endorsement at the Florida fundraiser and “the efforts of your good offices in helping us over some rough spots during the past few months” (p. 24).
Nancy Reagan and Lady Diana visit a Straight facility in Springfield, Va.
That was just the beginning; as Straight expanded it was repeatedly sued – Vice President George Bush made a promotional visit in 1987 and a TV commercial for Straight. In 1988, As President-elect, he agreed to appear on a Straight Inc. fundraising telethon. As rumors about brainwashing spread, Nancy Reagan made highly publicized visits to Straight, one of them with Lady Diana. After multiple lawsuits and state investigations found evidence of widespread abuses, Ronald Reagan wrote a blurb for a Straight brochure.
Editor’s Note: This is the third 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.
Beginning in 1976, the original design of Straight’s milieu was a slightly modified version of The Seed Inc., a program whose methods were also compared to “brainwashing” in the Congressional report, Individual Rights and the Federal Role in Behavior Modification (1974). Specific details about the origins of the actual design of The Seed program are elusive; it was one of many programs initiated in the late 1960s that implemented an array of group methods attributed to those developed by adult members of the therapeutic community, Synanon, founded in 1957 for the treatment of heroin addiction.
But the controversy over “brainwashing” in adolescent reform programs is older than any of the programs that grew out of Synanon; it seems to have started in 1962, over concerns about the Provo Experiment in Delinquency Rehabilitation at the Pinehills Center in Utah County, Utah. According to authors LaMar Empey and Maynard Erickson in their book, The Provo Experiment(1972), in November, 1962, at least one county commissioner had voiced concerns about public funding for the program because it seemed similar to “communist brainwashing.”
Editor’s Note: This is the second 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.
There is no way to account for the discrepancies or misconceptions reflected in the Malcolms’ report. It’s possible that they were ill-informed and the group was given special instructions to behave differently during their visit. They may have had some vested interest in writing a favorable report, but the simplest explanation might come from Dr. Malcolm himself.
In his book, The Case Against the Drugged Mind(1973), he argues that society is in decline because of drugs and alcohol and he acknowledges his lack of composure concerning our future:
I am one student of the subject who does not contemplate the future of the chemophilic society with the same degree of composure as many of my colleagues do. In fact, as the reader will soon note, I am quite unable to appreciate the general rejoicing that seems to attend the observation that we have at last become restrained and civilized about drugs (from the preface).
He seems to have considered all of Western Civilization to be a chemophilic society unraveling because of its illicit cravings, like a compulsive drug user, bent towards self-destruction:
The chemophilic society tends to do the same thing: it compulsively swallows, inserts sniffs and injects its miraculous drugs. Finally this pattern, exactly as in the case of the alcoholic tends to become inappropriate. The many alternatives to intoxication are simply ignored (p. 4).
Like an intervention with a self-harming family member, because the disease is progressive and terminal, our society will need to be rescued – before we can be certain about the cure – we will have to take some risks in order to save humanity:
It is apparent, moreover, that as a consequence of this our society is suffering from progressively more serious psychological and physical distress. We are, in fact very likely at a point in time at which some crucial decisions must be made. And some of these decisions will have to be made without the benefit of all the facts. Our sickness is real enough and we are not likely to recover from it spontaneously (p. 4).
The report doesn’t give any information about Barbara Malcolm, B.A., but considering Dr. Malcolm’s areas of expertise and his convictions, he might have been the perfect person to explain Straight’s methods in a favorable light. But knowing the uniform consistency across the Straight franchise throughout its operation (along with the fact that the Malcolms’ research was conducted during the infamous “Miller Newton years” at Saint Petersburg), it’s difficult to understand how their conclusion – “Straight simply does not engage in brainwashing” – could have been so conclusive and so completely contrary to other expert assessments.
Dr. Barry Beyerstein and Dr. Bruce Alexander, also Canadian addictions experts, first heard about Straight from American University professor Dr. Arnold Trebach, who is probably the first academician to publish a behind-the-scenes account of the methods used in Straight’s facilities.
In his book The Great Drug War (1987), Trebach devoted an entire chapter to Straight, detailing the story of Fred Collins: his bizarre abduction, the methods of “brainwashing” he witnessed, and his successful lawsuit against the program. While writing about Collins’ experience, Dr. Trebach sent a preliminary draft to Professor Beyerstein, Department of Psychology at Simon Fraser University. Beyerstein responded by comparing Straight’s techniques to those of the Chinese Communists that were used upon United Nations prisoners of war during the Korean War. “The parallels with Straight’s methods are striking,” Beyerstein said.
The Chinese used techniques that Straight seems to have lifted wholesale. It seemed to me as I read your account that someone at Straight had read the literature on brainwashing and systematically set out to apply it (Trebach, 1987, p. 43).
In 1990, Dr. Beyerstein and his colleague Dr. Bruce Alexander were able visit Straight’s Springfield, Virginia facility, observing their methods first-hand. Later that same year, Alexander summed up his observations of Straight in his book, Peaceful Measures: “I believe that Straight’s treatment can be fairly compared with ‘brainwashing’ in prisoner-of-war camps as documented by Brown (1963, chap. 2)” (p. 75). Then he mentions that Straight’s executives had provided him with the Malcolms’ report (along with the Friedman study) as proof that their methods were effective.
In effect, our hosts at Straight Inc. argued not that their means were so very different from what critics had alleged, but that their noble ends (saving the nation’s children!) justified such harsh and underhanded manipulations. They excused their tactics on the grounds that the dangers of drugs, especially for youth, are so overwhelming that practices normally forbidden in democracies must be permitted in the all-out battle for survival (p. 246).
In 1992, Dr. Beyerstein published a lengthy analysis comparing Straight’s methods to “brainwashing,” referring to the work of Dr. Robert Jay Lifton, Dr. Edgar Schein and cult expert, Dr. Susan Andersen. (The Malcolms referred to their own expertise and to Dr. Malcolm’s own personal criteria, found in The Tyranny of the Group, for their assessment.)
Check back next week for Part 3. Chatfield’s series will run every Thursday.
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.
Dr. Andrew I. Malcolm
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).
Editor’s Note: Today we welcome a post from Marcus Chatfield, who has spent years studying Straight, Inc. Chatfield is a recent graduate of Goddard College, where he received an Individualized Bachelor of Arts degree in the prevention of institutional child abuse. His undergraduate thesis, Institutionalized Persuasion, was self-published in December, 2014. He is a prospective grad student living in Florida. Enjoy!
The Office of Government Information Services (OGIS) recently arranged for the release of documents from the FBI’s investigation of Straight, Inc., a controversial teen treatment program. An initial Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request by the author in 2010 received no response and the collection was only released after subsequent requests and inquiries by the OGIS. After the FBI reviewed more than 1,224 pages in their possession, 970 were released with redactions and 254 pages were deleted, withheld by their Record/Information Dissemination Section. Almost all of these records were accumulated between 1992 and 1994 during a Grand Jury investigation that initiated in the Middle District of Florida. The investigation focused on fraudulent financial activities within the Straight, Inc. organization and the documents clearly state that federal authorities had evidence of criminal insurance fraud committed by Straight executives (p.55). Perhaps even more important, the documents seem to indicate that the FBI’s investigation was stopped before agents had a chance to review all of the evidence or explore all relevant leads (p.109-111).