Life after being in a cult

Cyndy Etler

Here are the stories of three cult kids who grew up to be healers

I spent 16 months of childhood trapped in a cult. I know what you’re thinking: ashrams. Curtain-like saffron robes. Non-denominational prayer circles. But not in my cult. We had no kumbaya, no goodwill toward men. We were trapped in a warehouse. With no windows. For a reason…

My cult was a money-making machine. Mel Sembler, a shopping centre salesman turned Republican fundraiser, had a brilliant idea: if he could get rid of unwanted teenagers, parents would pay him a lot of money. Enter Straight Inc., a drug rehab for troubled teens. Or, as the American Civil Rights Union described it, “a concentration camp for throwaway teens.”

Studied by the Cult Education Institute and the International Cultic Studies Institute, Straight ticks all the cult-indicator boxes, including peer pressure used to induce shame and guilt, obsession with bringing in new members and money, as well as a belief that the (exalted) ends justify the (reprehensible) means, and punishment meted out upon dissenters.

My friends Matthew Hellrung, Kris Flannery and I were three of the 50,000 kids locked up in Straight. Most of us had abusive, neglectful parents. Most of us had barely, if ever, done drugs. But that was beside the point.

"Matthew's primary childhood memory is riding a bike to the store for a carton of cigarettes and a fifth of Bacardi"

Matthew was 16 in December of 1981, when his mother signed him into Straight. His father had died in June, six months earlier. Matthew himself got the plot and arranged the funeral, because, he says, “I’m the only one who wasn’t drunk.” His primary childhood memory is riding a bike to the store for a carton of cigarettes and a fifth of Bacardi. He’d put them in his little backpack and pedal them home to his mum.

Kris was signed in at 16 as well. When her parents had divorced eight years prior, her father got custody and her mother moved away. Feeling abandoned, perceiving herself as ugly, and bullied by her peers, Kris was a lonely, depressed kid. Her stepmother saw her as a problem to get rid of. Straight promised a solution, along with a host of scare tactics. Her father fell for the lies.

Matthew Hellrung, Cyndy Etler

My father had died when I was one, so my mother found a guy with a house and a French accent. He turned out to be an alcoholic and a molester. When I hit puberty, I started fighting back. When I turned 13, I ran away from the abuse. When I turned 14, my mother had me arrested and signed me into Straight.

 

Our collective rap sheet: Matthew had taken one sip of beer at a family dinner. Kris had drunk two-and-a-half beers at a sleepover party. I was the most hardcore: I drank beer once and tried weed thrice. Straight made us all admit that we were dangerously addicted to drugs. We couldn’t speak to our parents until we said it and believed it. Those words, from our mouths, made our parents keep on writing cheques.

"When I got out, I was a 15-year-old nutjob, a psychologist mutant"

Matthew’s experience is a snapshot of what we all experienced in Straight…and how the programme convinced us to believe its alternative facts. Today, Matthew knows that he is on the Autism spectrum. At 16, he only knew that he didn’t know how to lie. The truth was, before Straight, he had been going to school, going to work, and making sure that his three younger siblings were fed. In the Straight warehouse he was surrounded by ferocious teens, continuously screaming at him that he was the cause of his parents’ problems.

Kris Flannery

He was forced to stand up and was yelled at all day. He was kept awake and yelled at all night. “You have to admit you’re a drug addict!” the group demanded, but all Matthew could say was, “I’m not. I don’t even know what drugs are. I don’t even know their names.’” He was punished with the peanut butter and water diet, but still. He couldn’t lie. He couldn’t say he was an addict.

So he was sent home with a sadistic group member, who demanded he sign a paper he couldn’t read. Matthew refused. He was returned to the warehouse with blood in his underwear. There, he was attacked by the whole Straight group. For weeks, he hadn’t slept. He had barely eaten. He had been raped a few hours prior. Broken, overwhelmed, he fell out of his chair. He was pinned down by six guys on a hard tile floor. He gave in and signed the paper.

Kris was in Straight for almost a year and a half. She knew every rule, backwards and forwards. We all did. One of those rules was, “No dating for six months after graduating.” Five months after graduation, her stepmother saw her holding a boy’s hand. She called Straight staff, who demanded Kris be returned to Straight immediately, lest she begin shooting up heroin the next day. Though Kris was 18 by this point—legally, no longer under her parent’s jurisdiction—she was kidnapped in broad daylight from her job’s parking lot. She was wrestled, kicking and screaming, into a car, then forced back into the warehouse.

 

Upon graduating Straight, returning to the “real world” was terrifying for all of us. When you have seen, felt, heard, and done what we did in the warehouse, you don’t snap back to normal. When I got out I was a 15-year-old nutjob, a psychological mutant. I had to live in my mother’s house and deal with her abusive husband. I had to attend school with the “dangerous druggies” who questioned my disappearance and laughed at my paranoia. I needed to disappear, to die. Instead, I met my English teacher.

"My English teacher read my writing, and she said it was good. Instead of needing to die, suddenly, I needed to write"

 

Much like Kris’ and Matthew’s early years, my childhood had been marked by dislike and neglect. No one had ever told me I was good at anything. Straight confirmed my contemptibility and worthlessness. When I shuffled into English class post-Straight and picked up a pen, reality shifted. My teacher read my writing. She said it was really good. She read it to my peers. And they clapped. For my writing. For me. Instead of needing to die, suddenly, I needed to write.

Now, after 17 years’ working with struggling teens in alternative schools, I am a board-certified teen life coach…and an award-winning young adult author. Through my coaching, my writing, and my presence on social media, I surrogate-parent thousands of teens.

A former Straight Inc. warehouse, which was occupied by Straight spinoff programme “Kids Helping Kids” when this photo was taken in 2005

Kris’s pivot came on a street corner. She joined a group of Straight spinoff survivors protesting a programme that continued to operate. In that group of kindred spirits—institutional abuse survivors struggling to right historic wrongs— a seed was planted. She had seen programme-survivor stories spread haphazardly across the internet. She recognised the need for empowerment, for validation.

Having trained as a lawyer, she had a vision for how to usher that process forward.

Today Kris’s website, Surviving Straight Inc., is a hub of survivor stories, reportage, and program documents. It's a source for media covering the troubled teen industry and therapists seeking guidance on how to support its victims. Most importantly, it confirms what we say happened in those windowless warehouses. It counters the lies we were forced to tell and the blame we were forced to carry.

Matthew was released from Straight after 13 months. He returned home to find that all his friends hated him. He later learned that the paper he signed had been a list of his friends’ names. It said they were all drug addicts and needed to be in Straight.

Matthew's big shift came on the heels of losing his accounting job. He moved into a stay-at-home parent role as his then-wife became the breadwinner, which allowed him time to study the classic career discovery text, “What Colour Is Your Parachute.” Each time he picked up the book, the words “I want to touch people’s lives” stood out. It took him a while longer to realise that the message was literal.

Through his massage therapy practice, Compassionate Heart Massage, Matthew’s Autism allows him to work miracles. Noticing muscular idiosyncrasies and sensing patterns in the body that doctors and physical therapists have overlooked, he provides his client with emotional and physical release of decades-old pain.

Thousands of us were locked up in Straight because we didn’t fit the mould, socially or at home. Because we were square pegs, our parents got rid of us. But looking at the trajectory of Matthew, Kris and I, one has to wonder if perhaps square pegs were made to heal a round world.

 

Cyndy Etler is the author of two memoirs about her experience in Straight Inc. She is also a teen life coach. Her work has been featured in The Independent, CNN, The Progressive, and She Knows.