Tuesday, March 20, 2012

About UnReformed

On January 4, 1990, I boarded a plane in New Orleans for the Dominican Republic. I was headed to Escuela Caribe, an evangelical Christian reform school (also the setting of Jesus Land by Julia Scheeres). The school had been referred to my parents by the influential religious organization, Focus on the Family.

My life would never be the same.

I thought I was going to a Christian boarding school. Instead I entered a two year long nightmare where I lost all basic human rights. I quickly learned to ask permission from my “housefather” to stand, to sit, to use the bathroom, and to enter each and every room. If I didn’t I was punished with hours of forced exercise, sometimes holding stress positions (push-up position, or holding my arms out to the side weighted with books) for long periods of time. Staff and fellow students watched my every gesture, keeping track of my “progress” on a daily point sheet.

One of these days, staff said, I would move up the school’s level system, confronting those with lower rank than me. I promised myself I would never do that.

I lied.

Awful things happened. Kids being beaten, molested, put into solitary confinement. Being manipulated in God’s name intensified the pressure. When the first Gulf War began, we were told it was “the beginning of the end of the world.” Girls who had undergone abortions were denounced as “baby-killers.” One housefather refused to allow my friend to see a counselor on the anniversary of her dad’s death because she refused to recognize Jesus as her Lord and Savior.

All letters to and from home were censored. All phone calls were supervised and taped. There was no way to tell anyone on the outside about the abuse.

Over time, I changed. I became a high-ranker, confronting lower ranking students in ways I had previously vowed never to engage. I sucked up to staff members by debating Scripture.

Eventually I graduated and made my escape. I was so spun out from the trauma that I couldn’t even write, but gradually, I achieved stability. Lots of my friends weren’t so lucky.

Unreformed seeks to open the eyes of America to the consequences of imprisoning our youth in residential treatment facilities, putting a human face to the statistics, a cultural context to the numbers and psychological insight into the practice, propelled by the memories of what happened to my friends and myself.

Some died. Most survived. We all changed.

This is our story.