Part IV of Rock Bottom: My Year in a Cult

“Today is the first day of the rest of your life”- Charles Dederich. I’m sure you’ve heard this saying over the years. It means something different to everyone, but to me it means my future is not determined by what happened yesterday; my future is determined by what I do today and the rest of my days. So I can dwell on the questionable techniques used at my boarding school, Monarch, or I can choose to accept my past and move on. But what if I were to tell you that that saying was actually the root of my past? Charles Dederich is none other than the founder of Synanon, the incredibly dangerous anti-drug cult of the 60s that later forked off into alternative schools like my own.

Hopefully you have read parts I, II, and III of this series, but let’s be honest, you probably haven’t. If you want this post to make more sense to you, read the other parts. I don’t really care though. You do you.

I have decided to spend this post evaluating my boarding school with a cult rubric. Was my school a cult? You decide.

Cult qualities of Monarch:

Item 1: Charismatic leader… Our leader was the school’s owner, Patrick McKenna (formerly Stambursky). He changed his name for some unknown reason. Patrick would drop in at school occasionally and give hugs, high-fives and head-nods left and right. He had some, but not much, direct interaction with us. But boy did we talk about him. There was even a picture of him as a teenager in our lodge. Students would stand and stare at the picture (partially because we thought he was really hot) and talk about him.

Patrick had gone to a CEDU school (an alternative school system started by a former Synanon member) in his adolescence and it supposedly changed him so much that he wanted to help more kids like him. He talked about this every time he was on campus, and was especially passionate about it when parents were visiting.

Item 2: Brainwashing…We used to go through these workshops called “insights” based off of CEDU’s “Propheets”. Here is a great break-down of the propheets: Propheet/Insight descriptions.

The insights were slightly watered-down versions of propheets, which were 24-hour long workshops designed to…fuck with us. Mine weren’t quite 24 hours. Some were 10 hours, and the last insight took place over 5 days with a few hours of sleep each night. The last insight was discontinued by the time I was supposed to go through it, which I see as a bummer, because no one was allowed to know what went on in an insight until going through it. You could’ve told me it was 5 days of washing cars, and I would’ve believed you.

Students used to joke “Don’t drink the insight water” because it was said that there were drugs inside of it to make it easier to brainwash us. This wasn’t true, but honestly, not that much of a stretch. Each insight started off with listing your “disclosures”. These are things you feel guilty about, or really just anything the staff tell you you should feel guilty about. Disclosures went as far back as you can remember. One of mine was that when I was 4, I pulled down my friend’s pants in McDonald’s. Apparently I still felt guilty about it, 12 years later. A lot of disclosures were about sex, drugs, and violence. This included, but was not limited to, injuring someone to the point of hospitalization, plans or attempts to kill someone, overdosing on a drug, and much more. Some talked about the abuse they faced while growing up. My list was embarrassingly trivial compared to my friends’ lists.

For a lot of students, it was primarily taken up by sexual experiences they had. A little fun fact: A new student was expected to create a disclosure list and then share it with their parents on their first visit. I know all parents love hearing about all the different locations at which their kids gave blow jobs.

A lot of the girls coming in claiming to be virgins weren’t believed, and coerced into admitting things that were not true. Some girls made up sexual stories because the staff didn’t believe they hadn’t had sex. Luckily, when I came in saying I had never kissed anyone, they were like, “Yeah, sounds about right.”

Other activities in insights were punching pillows, telling your peers what you didn’t like about them, yelling to the point of losing your voice, and much weirder things that I have probably blocked out. Apparently in the last insight your bathroom breaks were limited, causing immense bladder pain and rumor has it, sometimes, accidents.

You went through insights with about 10 or so other kids at the same level in their treatment as you. Once the insight was over, you’d walk back to the lodge with your peers where the rest of the school waited for you, cheering as you walked in. The kids who went through the insight sat in front of the school, arms around each other, smiling the weird, high smile you only got after an insight. Then you shared what your experience taught you. NOT what happened, as this was top-secret and only to be discussed between kids who had already been through the insight. Afterward, students who had gone through the insight were given cards to congratulate them on getting more brainwashed.

Another form of brainwashing that was a huge component of my experience there, were these things called “agreements”. There were 3 umbrella agreements: Sex, drugs, and violence. Under these agreements were very particular, annoying agreements like “A girl cannot sit with a group of guys without bringing another girl with her”, or “A girl cannot sit on the couch with another boy, unless there is a girl with her”, or “No talk of crushes outside of group therapy, or physical contact with the opposite sex besides a 3-second A-frame hugs”. These agreements assumed a straight-cis population, which we weren’t.

They were called agreements and not rules because we “had a choice in whether to follow them or not”, which is ridiculous, because if we didn’t follow them, we got in trouble. A fun little rule was that we weren’t allowed to write a list of all the agreements. This was either because they didn’t want evidence of their cult tendencies, or so they could make up new agreements whenever it benefitted them.

Students were expected to keep their peers accountable. If you witnessed someone breaking the rules and did not hold them accountable or tell a staff member, you were punished as well. This meant not saying anything when students were singing songs that weren’t allowed to be sung, swearing, talking about crushes, not walking within 10 feet of your dorm on the way to meals. And you couldn’t keep secrets at this school. Everything eventually came out.

Item 3: Isolation from the outside world… Upon entrance into the school, we gave up all contact to the outside world. We weren’t allowed electronics of any kind. Phones were left at home, the computer lab we had freedom to use was stripped of the internet, and kids could even get in trouble for using clipart. When one needed the internet for a school project, the teacher wrote a permission slip to use the small room of internet-enabled computers. A staff member monitored your computer use to make sure you were only using websites intended for your assignment.

Until you graduated to step 1 from step “orientation” you had no contact with your parents outside of group therapy Skype calls, and letters that were screened by the staff. Once you were allowed to call your parents, you were given 15 minutes every other week. A staff member had to be present to ensure that nothing negative was said about the program. Until step 4, you weren’t allowed to call anyone aside from your parents, and you couldn’t write letters to anyone that wasn’t a family member.

Once you were allowed to have visits with your family off-campus, you had to agree to not talk to any other students, past or present. This meant several awkward encounters at local restaurants. We were also not allowed to talk to friends from home, or talk to our parents about the possibility of leaving the school to come home. Here’s part of a fun little off-campus agreement list everyone had to fill out in before leaving campus.

Home visit agreements


Item 4: Shunning of members not in line with group standards… Students who were consistently out of agreement were put on programs, which I explained in the previous post. Part of the program usually entailed restrictions on who you were allowed to talk to. Some of my friends weren’t allowed to talk to any students, except during group therapy, or in regards to chores in the dorm, which is funny because kids got in trouble for playing solitaire as it was a seclusive game. Students who were really out of line were sent to other schools or wilderness programs. One girl was kicked out, and then students were encouraged to send her letters about how her choices were despicable.

Item 5: Appearance standards/Gender roles. The dress code was very strict. All clothing items needed to be checked in by staff. The clothes that weren’t allowed were stored until you left the school. Here are some of the standards I remember: No jeans. On class days, khakis with a collared shirt or blouse, a belt if there were belt loops, shirt tucked into pants. Girls were not allowed to have short hair cuts and were required to wear their hair up in a ponytail with no fly-aways. Boys were not allowed to have long hair or facial hair. These standards were even upheld on home visits, unless the student explicitly negotiated otherwise.

On work days we had to wear Carhartt pants, a plain t-shirt tucked into our pants, and specific brands of gloves, jackets, and boots. If you forgot an item, you were put on meal clean-up. Saturday nights were dress-up nights, where girls had to wear a skirt or dress, and a blouse, and the boys were to wear suits. On Sundays we were allowed to wear sweatpants, but the shirts still had to be tucked in.

This has been very long and disorganized, for which I apologize. But if I were able to eloquently recount my experiences, I would question if I had truly come to terms with what I went through. All I know is, today may be the first day of the rest of my life, but that doesn’t mean yesterday didn’t suck.


Filed under: Uncategorized

Leave a comment