Part III of Rock Bottom: My Year in a Cult

Part III of Rock Bottom: My Year in a Cult
Stanley Yelnats, wondering why I got sent to Camp Green Lake

(Continuation of Part I & Part II)

This is my third attempt at writing this post. The words I have written just haven’t done my adolescence justice. The therapeutic boarding school I attended from 2010-2011 had such an impact on me, that I don’t know where to start. Thus begins my third (and hopefully final) attempt.

Monarch School was based off of CEDU, a company that owned and operated many therapeutic boarding schools throughout the years. CEDU was based off of a cult popularized in the 60s called Synanon, which focused on rehabilitating drug addicts. Their technique was controversial, to say the least. They relied on a confrontational model, where patients did physical labor and were berated in front of their peers for days on end, often leading to a highly coveted emotional break-down. It was ultimately shut down for many accusations of varying crimes, mostly consisting of members beating former-members for leaving the cult.

So, my high school was based off of a cult. Millennials, am I right? Always joining cults.

It’s easy to state the facts. There is a simple timeline regarding the start and end of all of these schools/cults. But I’m trying to give you more than the facts. I want to talk about my experience at the school. Sure, this will involve some facts, but a lot of my time there is a blur. I’ve only recently started re-examining those years and recalling some weird shit.

It’s impossible for me to tell you everything I want to about my time at Monarch. That’s why I’m struggling to write this. To me, no stories about Monarch are irrelevant. Each event had a lasting effect on me. But ultimately, you don’t need to know about how we cleaned commercial grease traps as punishment for being late to breakfast.

I never chose to go to Monarch. I was a minor, and my opinion didn’t matter. Monarch was a place that is impossible to explain to outsiders. It’s hard to know what is common knowledge, and what was only performed in my cult. People are always shocked when I say we weren’t allowed to have any sort of relationships, but that’s nothing compared to one of my friends being prohibited from smiling and laughing for a few weeks. Or the time I wasn’t allowed to ask questions for 2 weeks.

I guess I’ll start with the general method used at Monarch. We copied Synanon’s world-renowned, scientifically proven (read with sarcasm) approach to help our troubled teens. This was the confrontational approach. We had to make many-a-list of our negative attributes and negative choices. A lot of our therapy was berating ourselves and others, and then in the end saying something about how we were living a lie, and our truth is like a little chrome ball without any corrupt fingerprints or scuff marks. That didn’t make any sense, but do you think it made sense to me when I was 16?

Group was considered our free space. While we weren’t allowed to swear, yell, or talk about our crushes throughout the day, during our 3 weekly group sessions we were allowed to say whatever we wanted. This meant we could sit across from a friend or an enemy and spew negative shit at them. Sometimes that meant listing off what we didn’t like about them, and other times it meant shouting at them. There were also some metaphorical physical activities meant to represent…I don’t know, your struggle or something.

That often meant staff members or other students pushing against you while you had to push/fight back. I don’t have much of a recollection of this, but apparently staff paired us off and told us we were going to slap each other. We prepared our bodies, and at the last minute we were told to put our hands down; but not before a couple kids found themselves trigger-happy.

There was also a huge physical labor aspect to our curriculum. Each student was assigned a work crew where they would spend that semester. There was forestry, farming, equestrian, gardening, and cooking. Cooking was the one crew that everyone begged to be on, since it kept them in a heated or air-conditioned building, with very little intense work. When I worked outside in the winter, I had to keep my insulin pump strapped to my chest, or else it would get too cold and stop working. I was on forestry crew for most of my time. That usually entailed clearing brush from the forest, chopping down dead trees, sawing logs, and just maintaining the campus when snow hit.

The good students only worked on these crews for about 8 hours a week. But if you got caught passing a suggestive note to your crush, or if the staff found out you smuggled perfume in, that’s when the hammer came down.

Students who didn’t follow the strict rules (although they were called “agreements” which is some bullshit) were put on a program. A program consisted of an isolated seat in the dining room where the trouble-maker was to spend all free-time/homework time. In that seat, you weren’t allowed to talk to anyone unless granted permission from a staff member.

You were also put on bans. Bans was a list of things you weren’t allowed to do/people you weren’t allowed to talk to. My friend was on smiling and laughing bans, dessert bans, and bans from students below step 3 in the program (over half of the school). When a student got in a lot of trouble, their bans were more widespread, oftentimes leaving them with 1 or no students to talk to.

The more trouble you were in, the more you had to work outside. Kids who were in moderate trouble worked solitarily during work crews, and also on our free day, Sunday. This was called a work assignment. Kids who were in extreme trouble were taken out of class to work outside. They were given projects to complete. Just before I arrived at Monarch, the school got rid of their “stump” work assignments. Students literally had to dig out giant tree stumps by themselves. Once I arrived, most of the assignments were building things, or shoveling snow and breaking ice, or bringing rocks from one pile to another for no apparent reason. That usually meant 30+ hours a week of unpaid labor. Not just unpaid. We paid them.

While on work assignment, the perpetrators weren’t allowed to acknowledge anyone else walking through the campus. No smiling, no eye contact, no exchange of words. If someone tried talking to the person on work assignment, the student was expected to look up, say “bans” and continue working.

My friend who got in more trouble than I did was often on work assignments. She recently told me that when she stopped going to class to complete her work assignments, she faked an ankle injury to get out of working. The school delayed medical attention, because that would mean explaining that this 16-year-old hurt herself while shoveling a compost pile when she was supposed to be in class.

This is the most detailed I can be in a relatively concise blog post. But there will be a part IV, where I put Monarch through a series of assessments to determine if it was a cult. Puberty, am I right? You start out a girl and then join a cult.



Filed under: High School, Mental Health, Past

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