James Tipper’s book, The Discarded Ones, is a riveting story about one teenager’s experience in a boarding school for troubled teens. Expelled from two schools and fighting with his stepfather, Charlie is told he is going away for the summer. Arriving at Ponderosa Academy, high in the mountains, Charlie opens his suitcase to find summer and winter clothes. Something is wrong. His mother tricked him. He is signed up for two years, not two months! What follows is a story closer to a horror flick than a summer camp.
Based on a true story, this novel describes one teen’s experience in a totally engulfing therapeutic community. Like Synanon, EST, and procedures at other popular rehab programs of the time, Charlie is stripped of his previous identity, separated from friends and family, and isolated in the mountains. Charlie’s experience is an ideal case study for a college course in adolescent or social psychology. Rampant are examples of deindividuation, isolation, obedience to authority, compliance, internalization and other social-psychological techniques used for brainwashing. Ponderosa Academy is more like Jim Jones’s Guyana, Patty Hearst’s kidnapping or Zimbardo’s Prison Experiment than an average high school.
On arriving at The Academy, Charlie is immediately led to a bathroom and told to remove his clothes. His wallet, a gift from his grandfather, is taken away. No logos, no slang, and no unapproved music are allowed. Just as military enlistees and concentration camp prisoners are shaved, deloused and given uniforms, Charlie, too was stripped of his identity.
Charlie panics. He wants to run but he is isolated high in the mountains. He wants to call home but he is not allowed a phone. He feels trapped and isolated, far from supportive friends and family. If he runs, he will either get lost or punished. Punishment is PROVO. Provo, Utah, that is some form of detention camp where the really bad kids go. No one knows exactly what Provo is. They just know no one comes back from there. PROVO is really bad. It is this threat of punishment that keeps the teens in order. Like prisoners, they are controlled by the threat of punishment.
Stripped of his identity and isolated from supportive friends and family, Charlie is given a new “family” – the therapeutic community. This community has expectations of its own and they are communicated both overtly and covertly. First, he signs an agreement. But, it is really not an agreement. It is a list of rules. Charlie knows he has no rights, he knows he is trapped, and he knows he is one down. But, he goes along because the alternatives are worse. This is compliance. He doesn’t agree. He doesn’t accept but he complies. He conforms externally with social pressure while privately disagreeing. Raps is a perfect example of compliance. At Ponderosa Academy, “raps” is a term used to describe a therapeutic technique where a group of teens sit in a circle and bare their souls. Freud would call this catharsis. At the Academy they called it confronting your lie. At Synanon it was The Game. But to social psychologists it is seen as expectancy effects. Individuals are pressured into confessing to some psychological problem whether they have one or not. And the minute a Kleenex box was shoved in your face, you were expected to cry.
Many teens, like Charlie, complied. They complied externally with social expectations of the therapeutic community while privately holding separate beliefs. However, after several months or years in the community, the members come to accept its values. They internalize the values of the community and even impose them on others. If they are really good at it, they become therapists and are paid. To me, I am reminded of WWII Jews, who take on the role of guards and beat other Jews in Nazi prison camps. Ultimately, the victim comes to identify with the abuser.
For Charlie, the book takes a surprising turn and one well worth reading. But, what about all the other young people who are tricked into residential treatment centers? Those who are young, vulnerable, with no rights and starved for attention? Then, they are exploited physically and financially by unlicensed therapists. Are they harmed or helped?