True tale of abuse at the hands of tormentors at “drug rehab” house reads like a horror story.
It is understandable if one is torn between reading Straightling: A Memoir in one sitting, and putting it down to hide under the bed covers. Because it’s so terrifying, as you read, you think the tale must be fiction. Yet this is a true story, written by Cyndy Drew Etler, who barely survived her childhood and adolescence … and, as they say, “lived to tell about it.”
Thirteen-year-old Cyndy’s best friend, Joanna, has a family. She has pocket money. And she lives to party. Her home is in a nearby town rife with rocky dirt lots and stripped-down cars; everything in sight is overlaid with graffiti. Cyndy believes that “life happens” in this hardscrabble place, and yearns for acceptance from the hard-luck “stoners” she encounters there.
So begins her tale. Better to be with kids who live on the edge than to be home where the abuse never ends. She looks up to her older sister Kim, who the reader never knows beyond learning that Cyndy thinks she is seriously cool and, consequently, steals from her—things like fancy underwear and a pin that says “Stoned.”
Cyndy is a wannabe; she doesn’t fit in anywhere. She’s longing for attention and looking for love, which is ultimately what leads to her incarceration at Straight Inc. It is ostensibly a drug rehab house, yet after the visiting parents leave, the doors are locked and the climate changes from concerned and caring to cruel and abusive.
Etler writes about her experiences at Straight as though in real time. Readers are pulled into the story by the author’s description of sounds, smells, physical pain, and the fear she endures, like in this passage depicting a confrontation: “Her voice is like Skeletor. I don’t even want to know what her eyes look like. Feeling them drill into my down-turned scalp is enough.”
Newcomers to Straight are led everywhere by their belt loops, which demonstrates that they have lost control over their lives. Schedules include regulated daily “rap sessions.” Patients are encouraged to snitch on each other. Those further along in their recovery make newcomers conform by cruel, threatening tactics and patients are pitted against each other to dissuade relationships.
Straight was a controversial drug rehabilitation program that existed from 1976-1993 in thirteen states. The writer was locked up (and, like her, many other teens were alleged to have been held against their will) in the Virginia facility. There were numerous allegations of abuse, and in every state where Straight had a facility, abuse was documented.
Etler’s stated purpose for writing this memoir is to help troubled teens. Her story is easy to follow because it is written chronologically. While it’s unclear whether the horrific details of this story are enough to help teens who are already in trouble, they might scare those on the brink from following the author’s path.
Though written for a young adult audience, the book also resonates for adults. With such experiences in her young life, it is to Etler’s credit that today she holds two degrees from the University of Massachusetts at Boston. She is a professional writer, editor, and teacher. A school edition of Straightling, featuring discussion questions and modified content, was recently released; her new book, Coiled, a prequel to Straightling, will soon be published.
Reviewed by Penny Hastings
At 14 years of age, Cyndy is taken to a facility called Straight by her mother, who claims she is an out-of-control, aggressively angry teen who keeps running away. What her mother does not mention is that Cyndy is running away from the physical and sexual abuse of her stepfather, and running to places where she desperately seeks a sense of belonging. Cyndy’s only sense of comfort comes from listening to Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin, and from hoping she has found new friends who accept her, but who are are actually furthering the abuse cycle. Her disbelief at the insanity at Straight turns to desperate obedience, as abuse and brainwashing leave her no other choice.
Etler’s self-published memoir of her 16-month lockup in a hellish “drug rehab” is a disturbing and intense read. In this “school edition,” the author tells us that the more intense language and content has been left out…but this is not a book for the squeamish. Each chapter is followed by discussion questions, and although the questions are good, their placement disrupts the flow of the story. Etler’s epilogue tells the rest of her story, as she finally finds a sense of herself and turns to helping troubled teens. No question, high school students who find their way to this book will be swallowed by its horrors and intensity. High school counselors and those involved with at risk-students will want to add Straightling to their collections, and offer it to students, as well.
Reblogged from Goodereader
In the minds of readers, the genre of memoir may have once been reserved for noteworthy people, full and lofty tomes that were written about one’s rise to the upper echelon of whatever excellence had been achieved. But as more and more readers clamor for tales of ordinary-yet-interesting people, whether they have gained notoriety or not, memoir has become a widely popular genre.
One interesting aspect of digital publishing is its obvious applications to any writer who wishes to put her work in front of a reading public, and that key characteristic has grown to include self-published memoir writers. No longer relegated just to the former Presidents or corporate CEOs, memoir writers are now simply any author with an interesting story to tell. Digital publishing is opening doors to putting those books into the hands of an avid audience.
Interestingly, more and more memoir authors are discovering the viable market for their works from the vantage point of people who want to know more about the process of overcoming serious obstacles. Writers are finding not only the healing process that comes in the form of writing a first-person account of childhood abuse, the labyrinth of mental illness, or overcoming a physical handicap to achieve a level of normalcy in life, they are also discovering an audience of readers who are hungry for these veritable survivor stories. And multitudes of those readers are grateful for the authors’ works.
GoodEReader.com spoke to teacher, editor, and author Cyndy Drew Etler about a work she has recently completed in which describes in horrifically accurate detail the undeniably true account of physical and mental abuse that took place while she was in a government-supported drug rehabilitation program aimed at reforming troubled teens. While Etler still has to decide which route she may opt to pursue for publication, knowing that digital publishing to ebook was available to her helped her see the point in reliving the mental torture of that time in her life. The completion of that memoir has led to an interview on Mark Levine’srecent radio program and an ability to provide some semblance of help to others in the survivor’s support group which Etler belongs to.
“I was getting up at 4:30 in the morning to write and it was the best I’ve felt in a long time,” says Etler of the process of writing this memoir. “I wrote almost every day, and on the days I couldn’t write I just dragged. When I reached the point in the book that was really the downturn in the story, I was stuck for the longest time trying to write the scenes because I couldn’t make myself do it. I had to physically put myself in a closet in my home and type the words. That dislodging of those scenes really tapped into an alternate sense of healing.
“I’m free of this, but so many survivors of this program don’t have that ability and desire to put the words on paper and get them out. I can describe the horrors of this program because I have re-experienced them as I wrote the book. Writing the book in the first person was my attempt to try to help people actually live it in print. That’s why it’s been so healing for me; I’m making the reader live through my experience on the page.”
While Etler is still considering publishing options, there has arguably never been a more productive time for authors and for readers given the ease of digital publishing. As more writers come forward with their memoirs, more audiences may find the sense of healing and community that comes from reading titles from authors who have successfully overcome their experiences.
Reblogged from Bustle
Maybe you’ve heard stories about the notorious Straight, Inc., a drug treatment facility for teens that became the subject of numerous abuse allegations during its 17 years in business. Maybe you’ve heard the horror stories, but Cyndy Etler lived them. In her young adult memoir, The Dead Inside, out April 1, 2017, Etler details the 16 months she spent behind locked doors at Straight, Inc. — a treatment program called “a concentration camp for throwaway kids” by an official for the American Civil Liberties Union.
Cyndy was just 14 years old when she ran away from home — and her abusive stepfather — and attempted to forge a life for herself on the streets. She’d barely even smoked pot, but after a month of living homeless, her mother sent her to the controversial drug rehab center. From the outside, Straight, Inc. seemed to be exactly the sort of place a “troubled teen” like Cyndy needed. From the inside, it was a bizarre, cult-like prison that used unethical, often abusive methods to rehabilitate the children. In The Dead Inside, Etler recounts the painful, disturbing time she spent in Straight, Inc. — a place where she suffered from sleep deprivation, physical abuse, and brainwashing.
These days, Cyndy Etler is a high school department chair, a teen life coach, and an author. She has spent much of her life helping troubled teens the right way — with respect and understanding and care.
Reblogged from VIce
With attorney general Jeff Sessions hellbent on a 1980s-style revival of drug war hits like lengthy mandatory sentences, and Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price dismissing evidence-based addiction medicine in favor of faith-based programs, it’s only fair to wonder if old-school, harsh teen rehab is far behind.
Cyndy Etler’s recently-published memoir, The Dead Inside, aims to remind parents and young people of the irreversible harm this approach can cause. Though she’d only smoked marijuana three times, her mother placed her in a notorious program called Straight, Incorporated, in 1985—when she was 14—after hearing praise for it from Nancy Reagan and Princess Diana. She was there for 16 months.
At its peak, Straight “treated” some 50,000 American teens, and spin-off programs operated until at least 2009. They relied principally on a hideous form of attack therapy, aimed at breaking youth psychologically through constant verbal—and sometimes physical—assaults. As a result, many developed post-traumatic stress disorder and depression, dozens committed suicide, and some became addicted to cocaine and heroin despite often only having used marijuana and alcohol before entering the program.
While “troubled teen” programs and “emotional growth” or “therapeutic boarding schools” that use similar tactics took a big hit following media exposes, survivor stories and the crash of 2008, with economic growth returning, there are murmurs in addiction recovery circles of a revival, buoyed by fears of a newly-ascendant drug warrior crowd in DC. VICE spoke to Etler about her experience and why a return to “tough love” is not what teens need right now.
VICE: Why did you get sent to Straight in the first place?
Cyndy Etler: The short version is my mother’s husband was sexually abusing me from an early age. When I hit puberty, I started fighting back—I ran away. I was homeless for a month in Bridgeport, Connecticut, which is a danger zone. It was the best month of my childhood.
The shelter where I stayed was fantastic—but I could only stay there for 30 days. On day 28, Nancy Reagan and Princess Di visited this place, Straight, Incorporated in Springfield, Virginia. A relative saw it on the news and called my mother and said this is where Cyndy belongs, and boom.
I had literally tried smoking pot three times.
So what happened when you first arrived?
I was in the intake room for a long time and then strip-searched—like cavity-searched by a guy—before I went into the group room. Then, they opened the door into this warehouse…. There’s really nothing to compare this to.
I was walked into the back of the room and it’s hundreds of bodies in rows of chairs. And they’ve got their arms up above their heads and they’re bashing their heads around and arms clicking as they hit other kids in the head. This sound, there’s no way to duplicate this sound. It’s like somebody shushing and spit pouring out.
Did you feel like you had been put into a cult?
At the time, it was such shell shock that… it was just like my bowels froze, my brain froze. Somebody’s hand was in the back of my pants pulling it up into my recently violated [genital area]. There’s no way to prepare yourself for that assault on every level, especially as a child.
What was the worst part of it for you?
It was [what they called] “review.” Standing up, surrounded, trapped by the bodies of hundreds of kids who hate you. Their entire existence depends on slaughtering you psychologically. You’re getting hit in the boobs. You’re getting hit in the butt by these arms, slapping around, hitting you—and their goal is to get called on to stand up and scream in your face and spit on you.
I think the worst of it was, if you’re in jail, if you’re in the military, if you are a prisoner of war, you have allies. In this situation, for the entire 16 months, I didn’t have a friend. Everybody was out to get me every second of every day.
Because in order to advance in the program, you had to show that you were compliant with the rules by enthusiastically attacking the other kids?
Yeah. You kind of had to and I guess I did—but I’m not that personality. I just sat there.
So what did you do to “advance” towards graduation?
I think what got me—and this is just heartbreaking—but what I think finally won me enough brownie points to not be the one “stood up” in every single review was when I confessed that I had made my step-father molest me.
It’s hard to imagine now that anyone could have ever thought that was a good idea, but in these programs, the idea is that everything that happens to you is your fault and you have to “take responsibility” for it, even if it is something like being molested by a pedophile. So you felt like you had to confess that you had led him on?
It’s bizarre, right?
Finally, when you are 15, they let you go home. And you are back in high school and back with your mom and the guy who’s abusing you?
[My mother] had filed for a divorce. By the time I got out, he was fresh out of the house. I suddenly was back at my druggie high school with these kids I hadn’t seen for a year-and-a-half. I had the zombie eyes.
When you came out, did you believe that you really had a drug problem and that Straight had been good for you?
Yeah. I just went to AA meetings around the clock and they were good, kind adults, so I sort of got parented. The AA people were really kind to me.
A lot of program survivors I’ve spoken to comply at home for a few months—and then get farther into drugs than they ever were before. Did that happen to you?
No. Instead, I went into deep, deep, suicidal depression and then I just started screwing boys.
So what made you want to write this book? You did manage to complete high school and college and become a teacher, working with troubled youth—it was pretty well behind you, no?
When I was a little kid I wanted to be a writer. Other than having big boobs, the one thing I got praised for was my writing. I just love it. My drug is writing.
I tried multiple times—and I couldn’t do it. When I met my husband and turned 30, I was in this weird place and then I did the compulsive reading about it and like, What the hell was this? I think then I kind of started in my brain to put it together.
When I really actually started writing this book, we moved down North Carolina. I started getting up at 4:30 in the morning and I started writing. It just tumbled out of me. I would bring it in to teach with and these kids who don’t want to read, they hate reading, they’re gangbangers. They loved it. I mean my students’ fingerprints are all over this book.
So basically you really began processing it only when you started to write?
Yeah. I had to write this book to take people into it because when you experience reading this book, you are living that child’s life—now you know what the fuck happened. I can’t tell you what happened, but I can make you feel it. I never talked to a therapist about it because I didn’t know how.
What would you say to parents right now who are concerned about their teens?
I got trained to be a teen life coach. The biggest takeaway for me was: Shut up and listen! That’s what the kids need. We’ve got to take ourselves out of it. Listen and validate them and then help them figure out: What is it that you really want, and what are some other ways that you can reach that?
I’m 13 years old, and I finally have a friend who likes me. I am not messing this up. Somehow she thinks I’m cool. How did I fool her? It’s my jean jacket. And my new black Wet n Wild eyeliner. And the button I stole from my actually-cool big sister. The one with the Rolling Stones tongue and the fuzzy red letters underneath. STONED. That’s why Jo likes me. She thinks I’m a stoner. I’m totally not. I’ve never even seen a frigging joint. But that doesn’t matter. Remember what we learned in biology about plant and animal cells? Plant cells have that hard shell around the outside. They’re rigid. But animal cells are smooshy around the edges, so they can change shape. I’m totally an animal cell.
We’re in the backyard of Jo’s, like, unbearably cool guy friends. I’m talking dirty Levi’s and sheep fur around their jean jacket collars. I’m talking characters from The Outsiders. This is my once-in-a-lifetime chance to get in with the right people. They don’t need to talk as Jo hands over the baggie she bought. They know what they’re doing with this ancient ritual of plant and fire and lips. They’re so cool, they’re cold. They’re human frigging icebergs. Somehow I’m here with them, a crackling, frenetic, sparking live wire. Stay back! Don’t touch the loser! The thing, the bowl, is moving around the circle. I lean back and look at the stars, praying that God rearranged them into an instruction manual. But no dice. No instructions. No idea what to do when it gets to me. Teach didn’t say a cell’s changing shape was easy. Just that it was possible. I don’t say yes to the bowl, and I don’t say no. I just try really, really hard to be cool.
reblogged from Monroe Courier
Cyndy Etler’s childhood was filled with physical and emotional abuse, anger, fighting, depression — so much so that she even considered suicide.
She fought back against a horrendous stepfather, ran away from home, ended up in Straight Inc. — once touted as a cure-all for troubled youth but later uncovered to be a virtual torture chamber used to brainwash teenagers into submission. Her life in Monroe was a virtual hell.
But Etler took control of her life, leaving the state to dedicate herself to helping troubled youngsters. Now she returns to Masuk High School for the first time since her youth as an accomplished author and teen life coach to pass on her story of survival — to let others who may face similar trials that they are not alone, there is hope.
“I’m a little scared,” said Etler about returning to the place where she was at her lowest emotionally. “I know when I go inside, I will need some time to process my emotions. I haven’t been back since 1990.
“It’s really stunning, it’s all coming full circle,” added Etler. “Back then I perceived myself as the muck on the bottom of a shoe. Now I’m coming back a published author. I’m amazed at the reception. People are so happy for me to come.”
Etler has a full day on Friday in her return to Monroe. She will be speaking to students at Masuk High School from 7:25 to 10:25 a.m.; Monroe Alternative School from 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.; and Linda’s Story Time, 447 Monroe Tpk., from 4 to 6 p.m. Books will be available for purchase at Linda’s Story Time, and Etler will be signing books.
“If you believe in magic,” said Etler, “you know it played a hand in this story. If you had told me 27 years ago that I would be doing this, I wouldn’t have believed it. I wasn’t even sure, then, that I would make it to this day. I feel incredibly fortunate to have the opportunity to return to Masuk, to inspire the kids in the seat that was mine three decades ago.”
Etler’s first tragedy happened before she was even old enough to comprehend — her father, a musician, died when she was 1. This, in turn, left her mother, who was much younger than her father, in a crippling state of depression.
Etler said her mother would ultimately remarry, to a man who would physically and sexually abuse Etler. When she hit puberty at around 11, Etler said, she turned from a difficult child to combative teen, attempting to fight back against her mother’s husband who had stolen her youth.
At age 13, to escape physical and sexual abuse, she ran away from home.
“The Monroe police found me, and I was given a choice — go home or go to a foster home. I couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t get to the foster home fast enough,” said Etler, who was moved to Janis House in Bridgeport, where the seeds were planted for her future role as teen life coach.
“That was the best month of my childhood. It was there that I realized who I wanted to become as an adult, as a professional. I wanted to be able to help others,” said Etler. “I knew that would be my mission, to be there for troubled kids.”
Then she met her Masuk High School English teacher, who accepted Etler as she was — sad, scared and always late for class. She also gave Etler a life-changing gift — recognition of her talent as a writer. Thanks to this teacher’s influence, Etler said, she decided to live, for she knew what she needed to do, write books and help other struggling teens.
“I taught in high school for 17 years, I know the audience,” said Etler, adding that one of the keys to understanding teens is for parents to “shut up and listen to your kids.”
“Parents sometimes don’t listen to the kids,” added Etler. “Parents are so focused on what their kids should do, they don’t really listen to the kids.”
Currently a young adult author and teen life coach, Etler spent 17 years teaching troubled teens in schools across America. Before she was paid for teaching, Etler did it for free, volunteering at public schools and facilities for runaway teens. Today she speaks at fund-raisers, schools and libraries, convincing teens that books work better than drugs.
Within a year of graduating from the University of Massachusetts at Boston with a bachelor’s degree in English and American studies, Etler obtained a master’s degree in secondary education. Along the way she picked up numerous awards, including the Student Leadership Award in her junior and senior years and the prestigious American Studies Department Book Award in her senior year. Her debut memoir, The Dead Inside, was published in April 2017. The sequel, We Can’t Be Friends, has already hit bookshelves, also to critical acclaim.
“Authenticity is so important when dealing with teens,” said Etler. “When I’m talking to them, there are times I tear up. The kids see that, and it shows them that this is someone who can show emotion. Kids are hiding pain, so this legitimizes it for them. Whatever you’re suffering through, you’re not alone. I’m a person who really, really cares.”
Cyndy Etler knows what it’s like to walk the halls of Masuk High School and feel hopeless.
She knows what it’s like to be homeless, what it’s like be locked up in a treatment center for teens — and what it’s like to be a teacher and a best-selling author.
Etler, a 1990 Masuk graduate, returned to speak for the first time at the high school recently, nearly 30 years after an English teacher there took a chance on her, she said.
With Drake’s “Started From the Bottom” playing in the background, Etler spoke to a group of creative writing and English students at the school’s library about her transformation from “beggar to baller”— from being a homeless teen to a successful author.
At age 13, Etler said, a fight with her mother and stepfather ended with her arrest and 30 days at a Bridgeport homeless shelter followed by 16 months locked up in the windowless warehouse known as Straight Inc.
The experience affected her deeply, she said. When she returned to Masuk High School, she was suicidal.
“I was weirdo, I couldn’t make eye contact, nobody liked me,” Etler said. “But this one English teacher would get my writing and be like, ‘this is good,’ and she’d read it aloud” in class.
It was that English teacher, Penny O’Dell, who encouraged her to write; and it was O’Dell who showed up at Masuk High School to see Etler and embrace her after her talk, more than 20 years after the two last connected face to face.
“When you’re a weirdo in the ‘80s in Connecticut, things are not good for you,” Etler said. “But when you have one English teacher who sees something in your writing and calls it out in front of everybody and then the other kids start saying, ‘let’s hear Cyndy’s’ that, that changed everything.”
After graduating from Masuk, she spent a year in college in Virginia before moving back with her mother. She worked multiple jobs, including cleaning toilets, to support herself and keep herself out of the house, she said.
When she was 20, she moved to Oregon, where she continued to do housework for families and other odd jobs before starting college at the University of Massachusetts Boston at age 29.
She worked for 17 years as a teacher, and began writing while she was still teaching.
Her memoir, “The Dead Inside: A True Story,” was published by Sourcebooks Fire in April 2017 and “We Can’t Be Friends: A True Story” was published in October.
Etler attributed her success to a goal of becoming an author, one adult in her life who cared and good books.
Her message to students was clear: if she could go from being a homeless teen to a best-selling author, they could do anything they set their mind to, she said.
“You guys, I think hear a lot of what you should do, you probably hear a lot of what’s wrong with you…there’s a lot of what you ‘should’ and it can make it feel like what you have is crap,” Etler said. “Really just that one person who sees the good in you … that’s really all you need.”
Now, Etler lives in North Carolina with her husband — her “one dependable, solid relationship” — and does life coaching for teens. She is developing literacy curriculum for at-risk youth and is hoping to speak at more high schools, she said.
“The books and the author stuff is what I love, but the mission is reaching kids, telling kids who feel like they have nobody ‘you can do this,’” she said.
Cailinn Stockman, a Masuk junior, said Etler’s presentation was “relatable and raw.”
“Even though someone may have obstacles in their life, they can come back stronger in spite of them,” Stockman said.