Saturday, March 9, 2013

Stockholm Syndrome Is for Real (for all NHYM Survivors...and anyone who has triumphed over trauma)

I was fifteen.
We were building the Director's house.
Our housefather would punish us if we didn't move
 faster, faster, faster...

What I need to tell you now is about Stockholm Syndrome and how it impacted me.

I need to tell you because for the past eight years I have been working on my book about the evangelical reform school Escuela Caribe. I have been vocal in speaking out against Escuela Caribe, both here and in an online private group for survivors of New Horizons Youth Ministries.  I need to tell you because I wasn't always like this, concrete that what happened to us was wrong.  I need for you to know that I had a (short) period where I adopted the party line and thought the program saved me, followed by years of ambivalency, all this before the outright surety I have advocated for the past several years ...

I need to tell you because I keep getting responses to this one post I wrote last summer.  And because of that post I need to tell you again- I wasn't always like this- concrete that what happened to us was wrong- because I too had Stockholm Syndrome, that phenomena where survivors of captivity relationships defend those who abused them.  

The last time I experienced an extreme version of Stockholm Syndrome was in 2006.  It was after Julia Scheeres' Jesus Land had been released (thank you, Julia for confirming I was not alone), when I (accompanied by the ever-amazing esposo) visited the Dominican Republic.  I had to see with my own eyes whether Escuela Caribe was abusive.

I went back to the campus outside Jarabacoa. It is beautiful-nestled high in these emerald mountains, the Cordillera Septrional. I haven't hiked the pine forests at the top of the mountain in over twenty years but it's still my safe place.

I was met at the gate (still guarded by locals- this time they had guns) by A. B.S. ( a staff member who has been affiliated since the eighties.) She took me on a tour of the school.

It was all prepped just like when we had visitors back in the early nineties (my time)- everyone smiling- no one being yelled at- no one receiving exercises- no one in the director's office being slammed. Certainly no one doing forced labor- digging a garbage pit, macheteing, moving rocks. After the tour, A and I sat alone in a new (to me) gazebo (which I recognized as being built by student labor- nice craftsmanship, my friends).  She brought out photo albums- she had all these pictures I didn't even know existed (there is one of me by the trash pit, back when I was on zero that I would love to own--I can't remember ever looking that young). 

As we talked, she reminded me of all the good memories- Bacardi Beach and whale-watching in Samana, the aquarium and Tropi-Burger in Santo Domingo, eating helados in Santiago’s park- things I had forgotten were amazing- things that looked fun but that I could remember turned ugly, once the camera was off.  And for a little while I was overwhelmed with love. I smiled and laughed mechanically all the while thinking "Is speaking out wrong?" and other variations of "Do I dare disturb the universe?"...We smiled and laughed and looked into each other's eyes and I was so overwhelmed with love that I almost caved and agreed that “Yes, you worked miracles.” 

I almost caved until I pushed back. Because we were looking at pictures back when my friends and I were young and beautiful---but then the rational part of my mind remembered how we all have struggled as adults and I had to fight those Southern girl/ Christian submissive repressions against speaking out- I had to question the system.  I asked her "why did we had to have zero level?" "Why did students have to broken in order to be fixed?"  Because do not mistake me- that is Escuela Caribe's (and most teen treatment centers) philosophy- that students HAVE to be BROKEN through demeaning loss of all freedom (to stand, to sit, to eat, to use the restroom without being watched, etc.) in order to enact change. For some people, this "change" has devastated their life. I told her that for me to believe that they were doing no harm they had to abolish the level system.  

And A. was startled. Her hazel eyes widened.  The smile dropped.  "But students have to be broken," she insisted "You have to have zero level.” 

And that's when the rational part of my mind took over, and I began more pointedly (quelling that Southern female, Southern female- never say what you really think) pushing back.  "Oh yea this person (you are showing me) has an eating disorder.  That one (and that one, and that one) is a drug addict.  They found that boy’s body in the desert...his corpse was burned."

That boy, M, haunts me. He had the face of a choirboy- and oh! the voice.  Large blue eyes.  Brown curls.  After his parents’ divorce he was sent to Escuela Caribe- not once but twice.  He’d come in young---I want to say twelve---I guess they convinced the family when he came back to the States the first time and acted out (because that's what PTSD does to you) that the second time would be the charm. 

I heard they identified his body with dental records. I could be wrong. Whatever happened was gruesome and undeniably in part connected to his trauma. Part of my mission is to pay you tribute, my friend. I hope you have found peace.

So I am telling you all of this to say that yes, I comprehend that people can feel affection for people for staff at my reform school, Escuela Caribe.  And I am telling you that even though face to face I spoke up, that later, when I went back to my hotel, I was still conflicted.  Somewhere (I WILL find it) I have this notebook where in BIG BLOCK LETTERS I wrote (like Mulder) I WANT TO BELIEVE.  Because OH I wanted to. I wanted to believe that what they were doing wasn't wrong.  I wanted to believe that in my silence I had not been complicit in allowing two more decades of student abuse.  I wanted to believe because that's what bonding under trauma does to you.  You have all these intense emotions and love for the one who hurt you and it is super hard to break.


  1. ...continue to speak out...never lose your voice...

    ...speaking from my own experience, my father is a convicted serial rapist--someone who, was he not my father would repulse me--and there's a part of me that still wants him to love me the way a father should love a daughter...that is the broken-down part, the part that needs to rise up and speak loudly, without fear or shame and say enough is enough...

    ...there is never pure evil, there are always hitches...but in the end, evil is evil and we must speak up...

  2. Thanks, Joy for reading. It is so good to hear from you. Thank you for encouraging me.
    Consider listening to the part that wants him to love you. We all contain multitudes. Head for the light. Embrace the love.