Paris Hilton; My Heroine
In the politically conservative state of Utah this week, a major decision in the legal realm has paved the way for a far greater oversight of institutions catering to ‘troubled teens’. These sites are the contemporary guise of the now defunct asylum system, and one can hope that they will eventually suffer the same demise. The Utah ruling opens up a transformation to this regard across the United States, and the celebrity Ms. Hilton’s testimony was crucial in pushing it forward. A true heroine, Ms. Hilton suffered sundry abuse at one of these institutions, to which she was sent by her parents at age seventeen to ostensibly curb her ‘incessant partying’.
This is the key trope in yet another front within the wider ambit of the ineptly named ‘culture wars’. There is, in fact, nothing cultural about this conflict. It is a war against fascism, pure and simple, the same war that was waged against the Reich. Though at base a female-perspective riff on Robert Heinlein’s novella ‘If this goes on…’, Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale should be enough for those who lack imagination to picture the society the so-called ‘Christian’ right desires to suffer upon the rest of us. They want to turn the entire world into an institution for ‘troubled’ youth. Never mind that their version of Christianity is a fraud, cooked up by the second Great Awakening Barnums and Baileys of the day. Never mind that in wider US law children and youth are not considered to be worthy of many human rights including the right not to be physically assaulted by their parents and yet in nineteen states, their teachers as well. Never mind that such wider laws are mostly unquestioned and that eighty percent of Americans still use physical coercion in child raising. Ms. Hilton’s victory remains a victory.
Not only is it admirable by way of the courage it must have taken for her to speak out publicly about the intimate abuse she suffered while in ‘care’, iterated by many others who were sent involuntarily to this same institution, but it is also of the utmost that lawmakers were so moved by this courage – shown both by her teenage self in actually undergoing and enduring such abuse as well as her adult self in being able to narrate it and thus expose this loathsome criminality – to take necessary action. The next step would be to shut these places down in their entirety.
When I was a professor in the USA for six years, I co-founded and then led the community service learning programs at two universities. A number of rehabilitation sites for youth were on my list of placements for my students. I accepted their applications after having studied their practices with all due rigor. The narratives my students later related to myself and their peers were grim, but these sites took in court referenced youth who had been found guilty of sexual assault, common assault, and other forms of juvenile mayhem that were actually against the law and did in fact endanger others. Not one of the inmates of these facilities had been forced by non-legal entities into incarceration, unlike Ms. Hilton. Now this is not to say that my experiential learning sites were above reproach. The methods of restraining violent youth were themselves violent, but rather of necessity, however regrettably. Pharmaceuticals were proscribed and administered to persons as young as ten for violence and even to quell libidinal drives. Indeed, many of the abuses that Ms. Hilton reports being a daily fetish in the non-court ordered sites were practiced as therapeutic interventions in the ones that contained court-ordered youth.
But therein lies the precise difference between such facilities. In the service learning sites within my ken, health professionals and judges were the sources of both placement and treatment. In the types of sites that the new Utah legal oversights will adjudicate, parents, pastors, teachers and other very dubious and non-professional authorities are the sources of the reference, placement, and ‘treatment’ once placed. And it is this line, between that of the discursively and legally responsible professional and the mere moralist, the line that turns lawful incarceration into abduction and forcible confinement, the line that turns treatment into abuse, that must not be crossed.
In volume three of my adventure trilogy, ‘Queen of Hearts’, Melissa Daniels, Guinevere’s contemporary sister, reflects on how their parents had regularly threatened to send her herself to one of these camps for ‘troubled teens’, and how many of those that were sent to them were once wards of the state:
“All that horseshit about magical swords and their relationship to their wielders tired me out. I felt the same way about animals, come to think of it. Equine therapy? That was one of the patent things those fucking evangelicals had set up for girls like me. Advertising how many of their wards – signed over by their parents sometimes for years at a time, including authority to discipline ‘if needed’ – had been adopted. They were in the business of saving souls, bless them; those of ‘wayward’ girls, girls with addictions, ‘attitude’ problems, ‘troubled teens’, now that was a favorite phrase. Fuck them all. And I will. [ ] We’ve already started. What we really needed to do, if we were to face a holy army of self-righteous regressives, was to raise an unholy one in return. Free all those so-called wayward girls and have them join with us. Get them back to their violent roots. Yes, freedom. Saving souls my fucking ass. All they were doing was taking opportunistic advantage to manipulate lost souls into their ever-bleeding franchise. It was simple demographics, thence simple politics. They could never get their regressive agenda tabled fully because there simply weren’t enough of them to do it. Compensate the loss of girls like me, well, boys too, by co-opting once wards of the state into their wider coven. Counsel them, pray with them, play with horses with them, swim and work-out and even paddle them when necessary. Wouldn’t you know it, I had been this close to having been sent to one of those ‘schools’ myself. Gwynne had herself never been threatened with it, but I had, once a month, for a couple of years. As soon as I had turned twelve, which was apparently the starting age these places accepted, mom and dad had showed me their websites. The girls all smiles, of course. Horses? Not my thing.”
This character no doubt has an axe to grind, given her own personal upbringing, but in essence her argument is correct. Placement sites for non-court ordered youth are like concentration camps with the goal of conversion and recruitment for the war latter day fascists desire to wage upon the rest of us. Though it would be a waste of infrastructure, I am tempted to borrow a phrase from the Reich myself, and suggest that this network of schools, camps, and other facilities simply be ‘levelled with the earth’, just as has been done with the vast majority of the now defunct asylum system.
I once had a lengthy sit on the tarmac at the Minneapolis International Airport. To my right, just off the ever expanding system of runways and service roads, was a cluster of Victorian buildings, standing starkly against the staring moonlight. It was a long abandoned Sanatorium, lower floors bricked in or covered over with aging plywood, the upper floor windows’ plate glass sometimes shattered by the intrepid vandal, the remaining sockets looking an abject absurdity that had transformed the once private madness of a lost soul into the unreason of an entire discourse. The irony of allying oneself with the history of psychopathology in order to hopefully defeat a yet more evil outlook does not escape us. Even so, as with Tuberculosis, Hysteria, Cancer and AIDS, the movement from morals to science is crucial. Without it, the abuses endured by Ms. Hilton and hundreds of thousands like her will only continue apace. I agree that teens need to spend less time partying, but not for the reasons the fascists intend. No, rather youth need to recruit themselves into a war against those very forces which threaten all of our present freedoms and more ominously, all of those freedoms that yet may come.
Social Philosopher G.V. Loewen is the author of over forty books in ethics, education, health, aesthetics and social theory, and more recently, metaphysical adventure fiction. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for over two decades.