I have only been home for a few hours when two strangers open the bedroom door. It is 6 in the morning, but the disturbance doesn't wake me. I am awake already, I don't know for how long. Minutes or seconds. These two men preparing in the living room, the last Are you sure, a hand on the doorknob. I must have heard it, opened my eyes.
They are standing in the doorway, two men, each of them alone more than big enough to move me on his own, one of them speaking, very kind already, Hey. Let's go.
My parents are gone. Or they are in the living room, watching. Or they are in the kitchen, or at the front door, a quick goodbye while we pass through to the driveway. My father, not my mother? My mother, my father already in his office?
Or it was one of them who woke me up, down on one knee next to my bed, hand on my shoulder, lightly shaking like, Hey buddy, you're going be late for school, except it isn't that this time. I don't remember. I have the sense that they were there, but I can't place them.
There's an SUV in the driveway. One of the men, "transporters" I'll later learn they're called, asks me how old I am.
When's your birthday?
It is July. I am six weeks into summer school, which I have been attending five days a week despite the fact that I walked out of my parents' house a month prior with $200 and had, until the night before, been dividing my time between three or four friends with empty couches and a taste or at least a tolerance for the kinds of drugs I like.
Some youth wilderness programs are sincere in their effort to help students; some believe help is best achieved by breaking them
I don't know why these friends let it go on for so long. I think my parents must have known where I was, called them, made sure I was at least still living, still going to classes. Why else would they be so willing to be up by 7? Driven me to campus through Los Angeles traffic?
Summer school has not been going well. I've fallen asleep each day in music history. I'm failing tests. On a trip to the Getty Villa, a recreation of a Roman estate high up over the Pacific Coast Highway, I hang back in the bathroom for an hour, convinced I'm having a heart attack.
I'd come back to my parents' house the night before after negotiation. In the driveway the next morning, I finally understand why they agreed so easily.
My birthday is in January, I say.
Oh, that's not for a while. You'll probably be back in time to celebrate.
I do not ask where I will be back from. I do not ask or say anything. It is urgent that I remain indifferent. I decide, for reasons I do not quite understand, that there is something to be won by appearing utterly calm. Do I hope this will make me appear stable? You've clearly made a mistake. This boy is fine.
I am indifferent in the SUV, one transporter up front, the other in the back seat beside me. One highway east, one south out of the Valley. I am indifferent in the parking lot at LAX, and in the terminal, and through security.
A TSA officer nods when one of my escorts shows her a pass in lieu of a ticket. He's not flying, but both have them, have got to guard me until boarding. I wait for the agent to ask what the hell is going on, but she nods. Evidently I am the only party that has not consented to this abduction.
The flight is delayed. We wait the better part of the day in the terminal. We fly, five hours, then another two men and another car and a long drive, and I am as cheery as the first pricks of withdrawal let me. I am indifferent for nearly 40 hours.
Then, in the forest, in Georgia, a few yards beyond a large canvas propped up like a tent top, with 10 or 12 men below it, away from them I am sitting on something — a stump? A rock? My backpack, I don't remember — and crying. For God's sake, just let me go just let me talk to my parents just let me have a phone just let me convince, I can convince, I get it, I know, I know you can't, but let me just let me just let's step back from what we're doing what the rules are, just begging I am begging for an exception person to person, just please.
This is not unusual. I will see a dozen patients come and go in the months before I get back to California. While not all of them beg quite so explicitly, while not all of them cry, most do.
Nobody knows precisely how many youth wilderness programs exist in the United States. Attempts to count them produce wildly different results, anywhere from dozens to over a thousand. Some are licensed, others are not. Some states require that programs register with a regulatory board, but many do not. Parent companies own entire networks of programs and schools but have at times taken legal steps to conceal their connections.
The largest umbrella organization for wilderness programs is the National Association of Therapeutic Schools and Programs. The group contains wilderness programs like Second Nature — the one I was sent to — and therapeutic boarding schools as well. These schools take students full time, with patients often spending years in them, indoors but subject to the same restrictions encountered in wilderness. These, too, have no official count.
These, too, are sparsely staffed, without screening or adequate training, in corporate networks, skirting around the legal borders of health care and its attendant regulation.
These too are part of a larger network of business interests, the "troubled teen industry," including transporters and "educational consultants" who help parents place students with programs often on the basis of prior relationships and at times on the basis of referral payments; who exert tremendous pressure on transitioning children from wilderness directly into a therapeutic boarding school regardless of the child's progress in wilderness.
Nicki Bush, a child psychologist, told the Atlantic in 2014 that "these programs call themselves wilderness therapy or come up with their own categories so that they can avoid the criteria that would apply to, for example, a mental health treatment facility."
According to the National Association of Therapeutic Schools and Programs' definition, wilderness programs:
subscribe to a diverse treatment model that incorporates a blend of therapeutic modalities, but do so in the context of wilderness environments and backcountry travel. The approach has evolved to include client assessment, development of an individual treatment plan, the use of established psychotherapeutic practice, and the development of aftercare plans. Outdoor behavioral health programs apply wilderness therapy in the field, which contains the following key elements that distinguish it from other approaches found to be effective in working with adolescents: 1) the promotion of self-efficacy and personal autonomy through task accomplishment, 2) a restructuring of the therapist-client relationship through group and communal living facilitated by natural consequences, and 3) the promotion of a therapeutic social group that is inherent in outdoor living arrangements.
You could be forgiven for believing that this corresponds to any legal or medical theory of treatment. Parents often are.
"When Keith Couch stumbled onto AnswersforParents.com, he thought he was getting exactly what was advertised," reported the Des Moines Register in April 2016, "a free referral service to help the couple identify 'some of the top Youth Development Programs in the world.'"
"The Couches now believe they were unwittingly steered toward Iowa's Midwest Academy by a business more geared toward profit than therapy. In Utah, where AnswersforParents is based, a whole industry surrounding troubled teens has delivered cash and kids to controversial residential facilities for more than 30 years, experts say."
These businesses tend to be in Utah. Or in Georgia. In any state where the law makes it easier for parents to sign over temporary custody, where small towns cannot betray them for fear of ruining the biggest business in town.
"There's social capital to having one of these in your area," Bush told the Atlantic.
"Moreover, because the youth that are put there are predominantly at risk for something — either they have some peer problems or behavior problems or social problems, etcetera — when something happens to them, people tend to dismiss it as, ‘Well, they're bad teens.'"
The biggest business I ever saw in Clayton, Georgia, was a salvage yard.
Before I go into the woods and join my group, I am processed in a small office beside a car salvage yard. It's late. The woman who does my intake has stayed late for this, and she hurries through the steps. Maybe she always hurries through the cavity search.
I'm measured and weighed. She draws my blood. They take my clothes and give me my uniform: two bright teal shirts, two pairs of cargo pants that can be unzipped into shorts. Hiking boots. A full-body backpack and smaller sacks to go in it.
The transporters told me to bring books, if I liked, but all three I've brought are taken while we're waiting for the results of my drug test.
"You can get them back with your therapist's permission after you're settled in," she says.
I never get permission. The group therapist, a man named Paul* who brings his dog to work and who has the friendly affect of a man overestimating his own charm, says I like abstraction too much. Books contribute to this problem. I need to learn to focus on myself, see the situation around me as it really is — by which they mean, as it will have to be from now on.
For the first few days, you're alone. This is intended, in part, to allow you to observe before participating, to acclimate to the woods and to the hikes and to sleeping outdoors, to detox if you have to, before becoming responsible for your share of the group's labor. You see the rituals before you join them. You learn how you are supposed to look.
But the isolation is also a tantrum buffer, a space in which to protest or cry or passively resist without directly impeding the activities of other patients. You're given a journal, some food, a plastic spoon. It is a temporary luxury — you'll need to throw it out soon and make your own from wood.
You are told to write your life story. No further instruction, although there are wrong answers.
You're told that you're in "Earth Phase," the first of four phases, each with attendant privileges. Earth Phase is the shortest: It ends after a few days when a clumsy, semi-serious ceremony carried out in perfect seriousness welcomes you into the group proper.
You enter "Fire Phase," like most everybody else. You sleep under your own tarp after that. You talk to the others. You participate in therapy and carry your share of group supplies. You help cook. You enter ordinary life, or a life that will come to feel ordinary soon.
(There are two other phases — "Water" and then "Air" — achieved by completing a variety of tasks. These include reading and writing, accomplishing certain key therapy events, demonstrating certain wilderness skills such as weaving a length of string no less than 6 inches from bark, capable of holding a 50-pound weight suspended for an hour. Some of these tasks have explicitly therapeutic purposes: Fill out this 12-Step Workbook. Some — for example, a book report on Man's Search for Meaning — do not.
I am Water Phase by the time I leave, a status that carries with it a small personal flashlight. Only one patient achieves Air Phase in my time there: He gets an air mattress and a folding chair, impossible luxuries.)
Any group that requires its members to tolerate one another's presence at all moments of each day, and that furthermore expects them to provide constant therapeutic support for one another, must induce shared trust.
In every story you'll ever read about these programs, there is a sentence introducing the reader to their very existence. You've probably never heard of this industry, but...
At Second Nature this was accomplished in a number of ways, largely through rigid communication structures. All conservation takes place within staff earshot. Certain kinds of conversation — for example, "war storying," i.e., valorizing past misdeeds — are forbidden. Important conversation occurs in "groups" of tiered importance. Standing groups are casual, for the organization of chores and small grievances. Sitting groups are slightly heavier, for therapeutic confession and conflict resolution.
Stick groups — sitting groups opened and closed with the ceremonial breaking of a stick and a few words of incantation — are the most serious of all, reserved for heavy and notable moments in group therapy.
We make structured statements. "I feel x because I believe y; when p did q, I felt z." Second Nature is very bullish on the notion that emotional states are a consequence of belief. If you're angry because someone shoved you, it's because you believe, rightly or wrongly, that people shouldn't push each other. As if rage required cognition.
Group trust is also accomplished by breaking in new members; by pointed, communal humiliation. The first stick group I participate in is the reading of my "letter of accountability." Everybody has one.
The group is convened, a stick is cracked, and you are given a letter written by your parents. You have not read it before, and you will read it aloud now: a liturgy of disappointments and misbehavior, concern, well wishes. At the behest of the program it includes particular incidents, particular wrongs.
We did not miscount the money on the counter. But even when we confronted you, you insisted you hadn't taken it. The lying hurts more than the theft, and we don't know what to do anymore. It comes down to: You've hurt us.
It is difficult to remain aloof after this experience. You are part of the group, and you will later read a reply you write to your parents, subject to critique by other patients. I feel like you're evading; I wonder if you're not rationalizing there. It is unclear if your peers are particularly concerned with the honesty of your reply. I never was.
But there are phrases you learn to say, evasions you learn to look for and point out. It is important that staff see that you have grown since you arrived, that you are now helping others through their difficult early days.
You come to like your group, at any rate. How could you not? There is no one else. I come to like Jackson, a wiry tweaker so evidently bullshitting his way through the program that it is a wonder he is allowed to leave at all. I come to like Rich, proportioned like a high school football player too skinny for the pros, who is at once capable of demonstrating peer leadership and always being very slightly in trouble with staff.
I come to like "Cool Mike." He is 13 years old, and his parents have sent him here for excessive marijuana use.
On the third day, I run.
It's morning when I do it, early enough that I don't have my shoes back yet. We're breaking down camp and staff looks away for a moment, and I walk over a pebble ridge in just thick socks. I don't know how long it takes for them to realize I am gone. Nobody yells. Nobody runs after me soon enough for me to see them.
We're in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, trails and roads elevated between ravines above tributaries. I stay off the road for hours, stay between trees. I walk across shallow water a few times, believing this will help if Second Nature makes use of tracking dogs. I shit in the woods without digging a hole and don't bury it; fuck them and fuck Leave no Trace.
I do not know what my plan is. I walked off on impulse, and it is several hours before Now what? cannot be deferred in the name of outrunning imagined, immediate pursuit. I do not know the way to Clayton and do not make a conscious effort to walk in a single direction. Second Nature operates at the southern tip of the Appalachians, and for all I know I am headed further in.
I still believe that if I can only get ahold of my parents, talk to them directly, they'll see reason. After three or four hours, I decide this has been my course of action all along: Get to town, get a phone, call, and beg.
In the afternoon I see a pickup truck parked next to a stream. An older man is fishing; a woman is sitting in the car. I am still wearing my orange safety vest when I walk over, but even if I had taken it off, they might have noticed I wasn't wearing any shoes. They might have known in any case: These are locals, and Second Nature is the biggest business around.
If they do know, they say nothing. They give me a small bottle of water and a cigarette. I'm soaking from the knees down in river water, from the waist up with sweat. We talk about how humid it is for late July.
I walk away and head up onto a road. During a hike the day before, I noticed how many bulletin boards there are on the roadside and believe I may be able to locate a map on one of them. But I am only on the road for 10 minutes before a white van passes me, then comes to a stop some 200 yards ahead.
Two staffers come out, and I run the other way. I'm exhausted; they catch me quick. I go limp, say nothing, and they carry me into the van. I don't know how far I've gotten or how far my group hiked that day, but we are back inside of five minutes.
I spend the next week on "watch," sleeping tucked in between bodies in the staff tent. Shouting won't cut it anymore — when I use the bathroom, a counselor comes with me.
My group did solos, three-day periods of solitude for patients, only once during my time there. They came three days after my escape attempt, and so I am forced to set up my tarp a few dozen yards from where staffers will spend the next three days, within easy sight but subject to a silent treatment.
God knows how I ruined their vacation. God knows what they do when they get to camp a few days, with no patients to watch and no patients watching them.
Some youth wilderness programs are worse than others. Methods vary. Some are sincere in their effort to help students; some believe help is best achieved by breaking them. Reality television shows have caught on to these boot camps, but none have bothered to see if they work. The National Institutes of Health believe these programs can worsen existing behavioral problems.
"Experts say schools associated with the network and others modeled after them have made millions of dollars marketing fixes to parents with out-of-control or drug-addicted teens," the Des Moines Register reported. "The schools get new clients from troubled-teen websites in which consultants are paid for referrals."
In a story published the same week, the Register interviewed a former employee of Midwest Academy, now shuttered, whose director has been accused of sexual abuse, fraud, and child neglect. The employee, Nathan Teggerdine, told the Register that the program made no effort to distinguish between students truly in need of help and those being disposed of by their parents.
"I had kids in there who had committed assault, and others who were just being disrespectful or not getting along with their siblings," Teggerdine told the paper. "It just felt like those students were being shipped off because they were being difficult to handle. But the thing is, they weren't being taken care of."
You hear this story all the time reading about wilderness and about therapeutic boarding schools. Parents are terrified. They're preyed upon by "consultants" working for referral fees. Their students are taken regardless of their needs. They are transferred between programs, as many as the consultant can persuade the parents of. The money comes in quick.
In 2007, the Government Accountability Office compiled a report on wilderness therapy and residential treatment programs, concluding that these programs were dangerously underregulated.
"We found thousands of allegations of abuse, some of which involved death, at residential treatment programs across the country and in American-owned and American-operated facilities abroad between the years 1990 and 2007," the report says.
The examples cited include the 2001 death of a 16-year-old girl who fell 50 feet while climbing in an "extremely dangerous area," and a 14-year-old boy who became so dehydrated that he began to compulsively "eat dirt from the desert floor." His "limp body" was placed into a sleeping bag, where he died.
In May 1990, a 15-year-old female was enrolled in a 9-week wilderness program. Although the program brochure claimed that counselors were "highly trained survival experts," they did not recognize the signs of dehydration when she began complaining of blurred vision, stumbling, and vomiting water 3 days into a hike.
According to police documents, on the fifth day and after nearly 2 days of serious symptoms, the dying teen finally collapsed and became unresponsive, at which point counselors attempted to signal for help using a fire because they were not equipped with radios.
Police documents state that the victim lay dead in a dirt road for 18 hours before rescuers arrived.
Who, precisely, did they expect to rescue by then?
Shortly after the girl's death, the program was closed. Its founder relocated to Nevada, where she opened another. These relocations are common. A new name and a new headquarters, often in a state less inclined to regulate troubled teen programs, can allow criminally negligent programs to survive for years.
In 2008, the Stop Child Abuse in Residential Programs for Teens Act was introduced in Congress. The National Association of Therapeutic Schools and Programs, along with other industry groups, lobbied against it. It died in the Senate.
In May 2013, the bill was introduced again. It died in the House.
In every story you'll ever read about these programs, there is a sentence introducing the reader to the very existence of these programs. You've probably never heard of this industry, but...
In every conversation I've ever had about them, someone says, I've never heard about any of this before. I've never seen anything about it at all.
We hike five days a week.
In the morning we eat grains and oats, then break down camp: individual tarps, group tarps, pots and pan and other supplies. We load them into full-body backpacks and go.
Hikes can last a few hours. They can last a day. They are interrupted by lunch, culled individually from the personal food supply each of us is granted per week (a pack of soft tortillas, three pieces of fruit, two ramen packs, and canned diced chicken). They are interrupted when a fight breaks out, or when somebody refuses to hike. They are interrupted by injuries.
When we reach our destination, we set up camp. Each of us has a flat tarp and string. We know the knots for creating shelter within trees: A-frames, slants, more elaborate designs if you're able.
We bow-drill for fire. Each of us has built a bow and a pummel and a top stone; somebody busts an ember to cook, or the dehydrated beans and rice we eat for dinner go cold. They give us communal meat and cheese on supply days, but it goes bad fast in August.
If the light isn't out yet when everything is done, we might play a game. My group prefers Mafia, and I will say you haven't really played it until you've played it with a dozen teenagers, gathered because they are duplicitous fuck-ups.
We leave our shoes beside our tarps, and staffers collect them. We're alone in bed. We sleep.
Except sleep, solitary, shoeless, and in darkness, nothing happens at Second Nature outside of the earshot and eyesight of staff. Over three months I will not have a private conversation with a fellow patient, nor be alone with any of them. Even perfectly audible conversations may be ruled technically out of earshot, if, for example, they are about a topic with which the staff is totally unfamiliar and therefore incapable of monitoring for forbidden subject matter.
(This will occur several times during hikes when Rich, a tall Canadian ketamine dealer, and I get to talking about computer science, and staffers are unsure whether we are telling "war stories," inappropriate glorifications of the bad behavior that got us here).
In daylight, a staff member can always see you. One leads the hike, one brings up the rear. They form a triangle at camp; each one always has at least 60 degrees of vision.
The environment is "secure," it is a "gift," it will "transform" everything from your child to your family to your life
There is an exception to this rule. When we shit or shower (fill a sack with river water, strip, and pour; repeat as necessary), we are allowed some privacy. But there is a catch. When out of sight, we must shout our first name every three to five seconds, loud enough to be heard at camp.
The first time I try to, I cut myself short, go back to camp, don't use the bathroom for days. I have to eventually, waddling up now swollen to the latrine another patient dug, yelling, half-assed, like a kid acutely embarrassed by fun.
This is precisely as ridiculous as you imagine. Or it is for a while. Shouting your own name, especially with pants down, or naked, does not become normal, but it is quickly unremarkable.
Second Nature was founded in 1998, by Cheryl Kehl and Devan Glissmeyer. Its first campus was in the Uinta mountain range, in Utah, but within a few years the program had expanded to Georgia, where Second Nature Blue Ridge opened in 2002, five years before I arrived. In 22 years, they say when I reached out for this story, nobody has ever died at Second Nature.
Today it has added additional programs for adults and younger children, as well as a second Utah location and a location in Oregon. Each site serves around 200 students per year, at a cost of nearly $500 a day, some of which may be covered by insurance.
Second Nature's website is filled with videos. On the homepage is a teenage girl, who tells us that Second Nature changed her life. We see pictures of smiling students and the Georgia wilderness. A man's voice intones: Second Nature restores families to wholeness.
It brings about miracles in the lives of troubled youths. He speaks like a television pastor, like an infomercial for an animal charity. Your confusion and fear and concern can be transformed into a better future for your child and family.
"Looking back, nothing else could've helped me," the girl says. "I am healthy and hopeful." She sounds like she is reading these words for the first time.
The FAQ contains more than 30 videos, a 90-second clip answering every question. Most feature Dr. Brad Reedy, sitting in a study with a phony-looking fireplace. Many of the questions are mundane: What will my child eat? How will they keep warm? What is the average stay?
But many touch on more abstract subjects. How does wilderness work? a video asks. "Through the use of metaphors, of rituals, of living in the wilderness" Reedy answers. It creates a sense of empowerment in a difficult but safe environment.
"This little universe teaches them how the big universe operates," he says. It teaches them about natural and logical consequences. "You don't need a lecture when your tarp falls down in the rain," he explains.
Throughout the videos, certain themes recur. The environment is "secure," it is a "gift," it will "transform" everything from your child to your family to your life. "There's more than resignation and acceptance," one says; the child "invests" in their treatment. They "buy in." They "understand what's at stake" and "want to do the work."
Watching all of Second Nature's videos, it is clear that this is the program's fundamental promise: We will get your child to invest in what's happening to him. We'll direct your money to a consultant, we'll push him toward long-term care, we'll threaten you with your child's death to get him here, but at bottom we promise: Your child will leave an active collaborator in his good behavior. He'll be transformed.
But what, precisely, were we being transformed into?
To hear the rhetoric, to see the stock photography of nature, to hear Dr. Reedy mumble "Native American spirituality" in one video, you might believe the goal was profundity. That we were to develop a desire to live predicated on a radical discovery of meaning, Thoreau-at-Walden, a vision quest, something sacred and vulnerable and particular to every one of us.
But that isn't what happened to me, and I don't think it's what happened to the others, either.
We accepted that we were trapped. We accepted the logical and natural consequences of bad behavior. We discovered that our day-to-day happiness and our long-term prospects for freedom were dependent on buying in. We lied, at first. We spoke the program's language and performed the qualities they were looking for. Eventually these became routine.
I was not lying when I left, but I had not been transformed into a believer, either. It was only automatic: a vacant animation of the easiest way to get along and get out.
This little universe is how the big universe works.
If there is an American paragon for the myth of transformation by wilderness, it is Henry David Thoreau. As legend would have it, he was the first to go outside for a long time and to find that in so doing a person might cast aside bad habits and bad thoughts and be permanently altered by the experience.
He wasn't, of course, but it is worth noting that Thoreau did not go to Walden Pond in order to make himself more agreeable to the society he left behind. The whole enterprise was nearly sabotaged when he was jailed for taxes owed; the purpose of his trip was not to learn how to deal with his defiant tendencies but to escape a civilization that could not accommodate his personality.
He did what, in the rhetoric of Second Nature, would be called a failure to "buy in" to his own well-being.
"I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary," Thoreau writes. If Walden transformed him, it did not transform him into a man who saw the value in learning to resign himself more easily.
Although we do not know where or for how long we are hiking, we imagine there is a plan. We imagine a map back at the office, the next week's worth of routes plotted for each of half a dozen groups.
Once, we are forced to stop along a westbound path for the better part of an hour while another group, barely audible, moves southward up ahead. But there are few near misses. The plans work: lines traveling on a map of the Blue Ridge Mountains, careful to never crisscross.
Geography varies. We travel low along riverbeds under the cover of heavy trees. We ascend barely perceptible inclines. We make sharp turns up steep mountains, coming around bends to see our old path a thousand feet below.
We must stay near water, but unless supplies are coming in we rarely stay at official campsites. So long as there are trees to strip up tarps, we can sleep.
But during a thunderstorm, trees crack and fall. We sit far apart, at least 30 feet between us, backpacks beneath us, both feet planted firmly on the ground. An hour and nobody moves. The sound of an oak tree exploding and the bark drumming down with the rain.
The sound of staffers stopping short on a hike when we come over the ridge of a high hill, and across is the side of a mountain, brown and black over thickets of twisted grass. We hike on, but it's slow going. We're top-heavy with our packs on. We trip in the underbrush.
Crossing takes hours and the desolation continues over every ridge, and when night comes we are still not out of it. We set up camp. For the first time, staffers come and check every tree we've strung our tarps against, check every tree nearby.
They don't say what the trouble is. They don't say they were surprised. Officially, everything is as it should be. The program has planned for this. But back in the office on the map on the wall, there is a line crossing a controlled burn zone. They didn't know.
Some people can work the program better than others. There are genuine enthusiasts. There are liars. There are those of us who do not quite know what we are doing anymore, but who understand, as everybody does, that cooperation will make this easier on everyone.
Doug arrives three weeks after I do, and by the time I left he was still not working at all. Doug throws tantrums. He refuses to walk, to speak, to eat. He stomps his feet and screams, he cries, and for sheer endurance the whole thing is a bravura performance, except that he is not performing. Like all of us, he arrives believing that he has fallen victim to an injustice from which he must immediately extricate himself. He never stops believing this.
We're sympathetic to Doug, but he holds us up. If he refuses to walk, none of us walk. If he refuses to eat, we've got to have a circle group to talk about it. Some of this is by design: If Doug's behavior inconveniences the rest of us, the rest of us will exert whatever individual effort we can to bring him into conformity with the group. If it fails, we will resent him, not wonder if every one of us shouldn't be protesting too.
Bad Doug is petulant, but his real trouble is that he's dim. It is clear that he has some kind of developmental disorder. He's never conned anyone in his life. He is told by staff, by Paul, by the whole program that he should be honest, and he is. He does not understand what they are asking of him.
Late in my stay, when the disappearance of most of our group has left me by far the most senior, I mention this to Paul. I'd like to help Doug, I say, but I worry that he doesn't understand the advantage of going along. "Some of this, at least for a while, is just pretending," I say, "That makes it easier. But he doesn't get that."
Paul pauses and allows that this may be true.
Subject line on a forum for former patients: Nearly 15 years past. Does it ever get easier to deal with?
Another: Been half a decade but still having trouble getting over my school.
Another: Ten years out and I still notice if I go a whole day without thinking about it.
In seminars, where they broke us emotionally and mentally, they taught us to admit to and internalize crimes that we had not committed ... to truly understand that we were at fault for the things other had done to us ... all of us, boys and girls (anything beyond that wasn't allowed), were taught that our rapes, our abuses, our neglect, was 100% our fault.
While we were there we were required to write a letter to our parents confessing all the bad things we had done, how we were flawed, broken people and how we needed to be fixed.
On this small forum alone, there are more than a hundred posts that use "torture" or "abuse"; dozens from those who are five, 10, 15 years out and still preoccupied by their experiences in wilderness. Many are just the names of programs. "Were you here?" "Any other survivors from this place?"
They go on for pages and pages.
It is difficult to know how often and to what extent these institutions traumatize their patients. Some schools, some programs, are surely worse than others. But it is difficult to escape the impression that many of these reports are hyperbolic. What is wilderness, even multi-year stints in therapeutic boarding school, compared with even criminal incarceration? Abduction, torture, war?
I called one of the contributors on the phone. She was my age and from the same city; she went to Second Nature at the same time, but to another location, in Utah. She has asthma, and the staff carried inhalers for her.
She told me about a long hike, well into the night and so extraordinary that the staff admitted they were lost. "It was really foggy," she says, "and we were hiking uphill, up steep hills. We had all run out of water, and I was having trouble breathing." She had an asthma attack, she says, but was denied her inhaler by a staffer.
"She told me that I was faking my asthma attack, that I was trying to be manipulative because I wanted a break," she told me. "I was audibly breathing at that point, pretty bad, and I was starting to get panicky. I asked another staffer, 'Please, please ask her to give me my inhaler, I really need it.' And the other staffer took her aside and convinced her, had to convince her to give me my inhaler."
She tells me this was common, that staffers would routinely insist that patients who weren't feeling well were engaging in deliberate manipulation. She says she began to prepare for the possibility that she would not get her inhaler until she collapsed.
In the 2014 Atlantic article, Sulome Anderson wrote that "critics of ... wilderness programs point out the lack of regulation for these businesses, citing abuse allegations as well as deaths that have taken place at such programs."
Despite elevated attention, these abuses haven't stopped. As recently as January 2016, Midwest Academy in Keokuk, Iowa, was raided and shut down by police after allegations of sexual abuse by staff.
I do not think of myself as a survivor. I did not suffer permanent injury in Georgia, and I cannot reject completely the argument that the program helped. I was a drug addict when I went in and sober when I came out. Could this have been accomplished in a more pleasant way? I don't know. How could I?
The girl I spoke to does not know either. After Second Nature, she spent two years in a therapeutic boarding school, convinced, like all of us were, that this would all be over soon.
"What seems obvious to me now, but wasn't at the time, is that from the day I was sent to wilderness I was never going to come home," she says. "My parents were never going to rescue me. They were never going to come get me early. They were not going to let me come home after wilderness."
"I was told perpetually throughout the first few weeks at Second Nature that I'd be there a few weeks, and then go home," she says. "That was a lie they told us to get us to work the program. Most kids are sent to a residential treatment center no matter what. It's decided in advance. Now I know there was no chance that I was going to come home. I was going to be gone for two years, from the day I got escorted to the wilderness."
She does not know if it helped her, those full two years of her life.
Does it get easier to deal with? The honest answer is that I don't think so, goes a reply to one post, I think the only thing that changes is that we go forward in life, which is not quite the same as moving on. To some extent I think we probably do move on, but I think it is a fairly muted form of doing so.
Muted is right, but I cannot quite tell you why.
I suspect reasonable people will conclude that allegations of abuse are serious, that some programs go too far. But, they'll go on, there's a difference between kids who were really tortured and kids who just didn't like the tough love.
Maybe so, and so maybe it is easy to see why some former patients are inclined to strong language, to anger, to proving that something bad happened to them, something beyond a bummer time for a shitty teen, something that should not happen to anyone.
When I began writing this piece, I wanted that too. I wanted to find some proof that Second Nature was among the bad places, the kind of proof that you can print in a magazine. I wanted to justify why I am writing this at all, why I was the one who wrote, Ten years out and I still notice if I go a whole day without thinking about it. That was me.
When I first read Anderson's article, I thought I had found it: "As recently as six months ago, police began investigating allegations that a counselor at Second Nature Blue Ridge, a wilderness program in Georgia, forced a 14-year-old into a sexual encounter. That investigation is ongoing."
But the link is dead. The story, and any other stories about the investigation, are no longer on the Clayton Tribune's website. A search of the archives yields nothing. When I wrote the paper to request a copy, they told me they didn't know — it was a different staff then; they don't know the details anymore, or what happened to the story.
I don't know the results of that investigation. I do not know what the particular allegations were, or who made them. But I believe it.
Paul did not tend to believe me. We had a difference of opinion regarding my problems.
He believed, soundly, I suppose, that most patients' trouble arises from a lack of self-awareness. They try to fix the wrong problems, don't understand their own motives, sublimate and deflect.
But more than that, he had a particularly narrow sense of what might be hiding under a teenager's superficial rationales. Drugs, in his view, were always a way to medicate unhappiness; always indicative of depression or anxiety, the kind that could be treated with conventional methods if only the patient realized she was self-medicating.
I do not know how often this diagnosis was correct. In the absence of a specific trauma in patient history, I imagine it explained 80 percent of his cases.
I do not know, either, if it was ultimately true of me. But I know that at the time, when I insisted that I did what I did in large part because I was bored and surrounded by friends who were already using, he did not try to persuade me. He only told me I was wrong and implied that a failure to move past this insistence would jeopardize his assessment of my progress, and therefore my release.
I know that I learned to say what I was meant to be feeling, to have scripted conversations reflecting my progress along expected lines.
It was not that I accepted these platitudes, but it was not that I was lying, either. I learned to suspend any feeling at all, to play a game like this might as well be true, to treat my sessions as events removed from myself, where I was not really present at all. I learned to give him what he wanted if I wanted this to end.
There are no mirrors in the wilderness. For months, you do not see your own reflection.
You catch a version of it in the water, too dark and rippling, or in steel, on the hubcap of the supply truck, sun smashed on the steel. The glare blinds you if you try to meet your own eyes.
You know that your body is changing. Your hair grows longer. You gain weight or you lose it. Your legs become thick. For all the bags of river water you pour over your own head, your skin is caked and cracked with dirt. You put your palm to your face and feel the beard growing in, take stock in the manner of the blind, press fingertips down to find your cheekbones, your jawline, your neck. You see the others changing and think you must be changing as they are.
There is an American myth that goes like this: A man goes into the wilderness to escape his life. There, away from society, closer to some primal way of being, he finds clarity.
You forget that is a strange thing. How many times you met your own eyes in ordinary life. The faculty for tracking incremental difference becomes dedicated to leaves, to rocks, to sky, to the footfalls of the others.
Then a car ride. Then the road, the salvage yard, the small office where your clothes are given back. Then a small bathroom by yourself, where you must remember you do not need to shout, where there is a shower but there is a mirror, too, and there you are. Your own eyes back at you straight on, without the murky interference of shallow water.
You see yourself the way a friend does who has not seen you in a while. In the manner of parents at the curbside, waiting for a son come back for his first collegiate Christmas. All at once transformed.
The novelty wears quickly. The beard goes and the legs wither, too.
In wilderness it is impossible to know what anybody is thinking. Surely some of them believe in the program, really do, and surely some of them are liars. Some of us are unsure what we are doing.
I am closer to Rich than to anyone, but our friendship is as performed as it is genuine. I like him and I believe he likes me, but we speak for the benefit of the staff, at least a little bit, always.
I suspect that he, too, occupies some space between sincerity and deception. I suspect that he has become automatic in his acceptance of the program, that he means it in a vacant way. But I do not know. He has been here a long time and is, if nothing else, very good at speaking the program's language, performing its concerns.
Rich leaves three or four weeks before I do. Like everyone, he finds out he is going an hour before he goes. When somebody leaves Second Nature, they give away their goods to the others: food, walking sticks, anything they cannot take with them.
When Rich leaves, camp is in unusual chaos. We're spread out everywhere. Supplies are coming in; his parents are in a car waiting. He rushes between us: his ramen to Mike, his bow to Andrew. He won a bag of M&Ms the week before, the promise for anyone who can bust an ember in under 30 seconds. He hands what's left of them to all of us.
I am nearly at Water Phase, and one of my remaining tasks is to create a length of string by weaving bark, one that can hold up a heavy bag for an hour. Rich has been Water Phase for a while, and he is meant to teach me how to do this but has not had time.
When he comes to me he's manic, grinning; he's going home. He shakes my hand. He presses his own bark string into it. Just tell them I showed you how to make it, he says, and then he goes.
There is an American myth that goes like this: A man goes into the wilderness to escape his life. There, away from society, closer to some primal way of being, he finds clarity. He finds that he had not been living at all, not really, but now he is transformed and happy and at peace.
It is an old myth. It has animated centuries of our history, easily adapted, from the genocidal imperialism of Protestant frontiersmen to the proto-libertarianism of Thoreau, through the Christianity of Dillard and the environmentalism of the Sierra Club.
It remains today, in backpacking trips and festivals, promising an escape from the hounding modernity of cellphones.
To hear the sales pitch for Wilderness Therapy, to watch Second Nature's videos, it is easy to believe they promise a version of this story. Your child is troubled. He's in danger. To recover, he must go into the wilderness and undergo this ancient American rite.
But are they? In every version of the wilderness myth, the object is escape. Society is stifling, cruel, vicious, hypocritical. One goes out into the woods to make a new society, or simply to be left alone. The wilderness is for iconoclasts and malcontents, not patients in search of a cure.
Second Nature does not promise an exit from society so much as integration into it. It will take your fear and your worry and even your kid who only smokes pot too much and carry them from educational consultants to wilderness programs to therapeutic boarding schools, not so that rough edges can escape the friction around them but to smooth those edges out. Second Nature wants to make misfits well-adjusted.
When I was in the wilderness, I believed I was pulling one over. We all did. We believed we had learned the language, played the part, that we had conned them. We believed we had escaped with our hearts intact. Not transformed, not really.
Did we? Or was this the object all along? Second Nature taught all of us how to pretend, how to better bury ourselves and be agreeable, to get along. It taught us precisely what is required in polite society. It allowed us to believe in our subterranean dissent, but who was conning whom, at bottom?
Second Nature promises to make you healthy, and it does, so far as anyone can see. Is the health superficial? Does it matter?
I went to the woods and learned to pretend, to become vacant in the act of citizenry, to behave. Was this the point? Is it a bad one?
Did it work?
In one of Second Nature's videos, Dr. Reedy reassures parents who feel guilty about sending their child into captivity. They may threaten to stop loving you, he says, or to withhold forgiveness. But parents must make these sacrifices, he says. They'll forgive you when they're healthy.
I have not refused forgiveness, but I don't know that I have forgiven, either. I am still vacant on it, not quite present, not quite incarnated in my feeling or memory of the place. Am I healthy? It looks that way; it looks like what was meant to happen there, no matter what, really did.
I left Second Nature in fall, after monsoon season, in weather like the weather I came in on. My parents had come a week before for a visit. I don't remember it now, but my father says I cried. I believe it, although I do not know how much I believed myself then.
I wasn't lying. Only I did it, like I did circle group and stick group and counseling and the importance of leadership and everything I'd tell my therapist in the months that followed — automatic, suspended.
I spent the week suspicious that I would leave soon. The long walk back from the shower happened then. What consequences would there be for taking a little too long, going a little too far?
I didn't cry when they came back. I was indifferent, pleasant, glad, all the way back to the processing office, in an SUV my parents rented, the first car I had seen in months, my belongings given back to me at the desk, a real shower, clothes that barely fit anymore.
There's a picture of me outside the office: against a low wall with my knee bent. I looked at it years later and realized that there are memories we can re-inhabit — where we can see again out of our old eyes, recall what we were feeling, where this particular moment fell on a continuity of desires and concerns — but that this wasn't one of them. My face, in the photo, says nothing. I remember the inside of the shower but nothing else. I was there; there's a picture. That's all.
The Second Nature office is at the foot of the mountains; after we left, it was hours back to Atlanta. I don't know that I said much. But when we turned off the country roads and onto the first long highway, I didn't see a street with traffic. I saw steel boxes passing within inches of each other on the basis of painted lines, ordinary life conducted at 80 miles per hour on the faith that nobody would break the rules today.
Have you wondered what would happen if you had a heart attack on the road? How can you clutch your chest if you've got to keep both hands on the wheel?
Today, when I return home, my parents find me at the airport in Santa Barbara and drive me an hour down the Pacific Coast to their home. Even now, years later, I sit in the back seat and fail to see what I'm supposed to, worry what happens if the driver's heart isn't what it seems.
* I refer to Paul, and all the other people I met during my time at Second Nature, by only his first name.
Emmett Rensin is deputy First Person editor at Vox.
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