Cop Out – Amy E’s Story

Amy E
Cincinnati and Dallas
July 1987-November 1988

I’m from Seattle, Washington, and enjoyed a relatively stable and normal childhood, taking dance lessons, riding bikes with friends, going on family vacations. I lived a fairly privileged upbringing. Nonetheless, at the age of 12 a depression came on, resulting in me dropping my dance lessons, taking up smoking cigarettes with friends, and overall enjoying life a little less. Looking back, I can see that my troubles really started when I was raped by a complete stranger on a trip to San Francisco at the age of 14 – ironically on the stairway of Ripley’s Believe it or Not. I literally did not have the tools to deal with or understand what had happened to me. I became convinced I was a slut; that I had somehow asked for it. That incident, combined with the fact that I am adopted and had a growing, unspoken but ongoing suspicion that I was somehow not good enough, a throwaway, combined to create the perfect storm that was my adolescence. I ran away from home. I did drugs. Lots of them. In my introductions in Straight I would learn to list them all: pot, alcohol, meth, coke, mushrooms, ecstasy, acid. I dropped out of school and lived on the streets for a time, making my home with a pit bull named Bub and my “druggie” boyfriend under a tree in one of our city parks. My parents were terrified for me and didn’t know what to do; they believed my life was in danger. And it probably was. God knows the streets aren’t a safe place for a young girl, even with Bub’s protection. It was in this context that my parents discovered Straight, and became convinced that the program would save me.

I was first placed in the Cincinnati facility. My mom was from Cincinnati and lured me back to her hometown with a made up story of needing to visit my sick aunt. She sweetened the pot by promising to help out with first, last and deposit on an apartment for me and my boyfriend as long when we got back from the trip. On the plane, I dreamed of acid rain, and of a place where kids were trying to hide from that rain. I could taste the acid in my mouth, the dream was that vivid. I told my parents about the dream; it left me very uneasy. Upon landing in Cincinnati, my parents took me to see one of my mom’s friends at her office. I knew once I entered the building and saw the “tough love” sign that I had been duped and was in seriously bad trouble. This was the acid rain. Immediate panic set in and settled, became a constant companion as I navigated those first days and weeks as an inmate of Straight Inc. At my intake I was horrified by their questions; they seemed obsessed with trying to get me to admit to having sex with animals and other fetishes. It was surreal. Coming from a liberal and non-religious home, I could not believe my parents would maroon me in a cult, a nuthouse, a place of horrors. Reading was not allowed at all on first phase, and on second phase, we could only read the bible, with the exception, of course, of the book of revelations. Apparently that particular story (which I have yet to read) led directly to devil worship, a real concern among the depraved and decidedly non-therapeutic jailers that ran Straight Inc. 

I was in Cincinnati for somewhere between two and three months. I have very little recollection of that time. I remember someone standing up and sharing something painful and me thinking, why are these people not actually helping? This person needs help! I remember a first phase girl, a “misbehavior,” who had been sitting in her blue chair for almost a year. Not motivating. Not answering questions. Not playing the game in any way. Just sitting. Her arms were scarred from hundreds of self-inflicted cuts. She scared the hell out of me; while I admired her grit, I knew my chances of surviving the whole ordeal were better if I appeared to toe the line. The thought of being locked up for an entire year as a First Phaser was appalling.  I’m pretty sure I was still on First Phase when I got word I was being transferred; turns out Cincinnati had been shut down for child abuse violations. Of course my family didn’t know the reason why it closed and neither did I. All I knew was that I was quite suddenly on an airplane headed for Straight Dallas, which was a large, nondescript building in an industrial park in Richardson, Texas. Several other “Straightlings” were also on the flight, and I believe I recall some of them drinking on the airplane (although my memory is so vague on it all I can’t be certain).  I don’t remember there being any chaperone, just us. My first night in Texas I spent in a double-wide in the small rural town of Quinlan, overlooking a bunch of toilet seats, car parts and other machinery abandoned in the yard, and choking down chicken fried steak (which I never did learn to enjoy). 

Not being allowed to go outside, at all, was the hardest part for me, harder even than not being allowed to read, listen to music, or have any privacy to take a shower or go to the bathroom. Harder even than being watched all the time, 24/7, locked up and deprived of all liberty and individuality. Harder than not being able to talk to others, choose my own clothes, or know where I would stay from night to night. Having grown up in the Pacific Northwest, I sorely missed Mount Rainier and the views of various lakes and the Puget Sound. The glimpses of the outdoors I got from the long car rides between host homes and the building left me feeling parched and stranded in a flat, unwelcoming landscape. Sitting in my blue chair, erect, hands on knees and staring straight ahead at the 12 steps, I would fantasize constantly about my escape. Yes, I was “in my head” all the time. I understood innately that this place was not a good place, and believed I could – and would – suffer deep physiological harm if I didn’t get the hell out of there. Straight was smart though. There was no way to explain the situation or ask for help without being labeled “manipulative.” I knew I couldn’t do anything about my situation as a First Phaser. So I worked the program. 

I started making serious plans on 3rd phase. I somehow made a couple phone calls to my “druggie best friend” and she encouraged me to get the hell out. The desire to escape was overpowering. My First Phase newcomer was a recent copout so we started talking. We had an unusual situation in that it was just the two of us in the host home for a few days. We grew to trust each other, as much as one can in a place that encourages distrust, and we hashed a plan to escape. 

One early morning in late October morning, we went to group as usual, and my newcomer indicated she needed to use the bathroom. We went down the hall to the bathroom, glanced around, detoured to the unmanned side door (unmanned as it was still early and people were just beginning to arrive), opened it and just ran like hell. We weren’t really sure where we were or how to get out of the huge industrial park. I remember thinking “run run run!” and “we need to find a bus, get off the street, someone is going to see us!” I had around $13 on me, can’t remember how I came by that money, but between the two of us that’s all that we had, that and a cassette tape of the Eagles’ Hotel California. The terror that we would be caught was as high as the elation of finally running and the near prospect of freedom. We lucked out and caught a bus right there in the industrial park and ended up at a truck stop somewhere in Dallas, or maybe just outside of Dallas. From there we hitched.

The first ride was the best. Our truck driver was a genuinely nice man, and he fed us and liked us and helped us, but he never once hit on us. He drove us to Oklahoma with the Eagles playing in his big rig. At one point he stopped by the side of the road and I got out of the cab. Barefooted, I ran and danced in a field of freshly fallen leaves. I felt jubilant, liberated, hopeful. It was one of the most memorable moments of my life. 

From Oklahoma the driver had to go back through Texas. We were loath to reenter the state but had no real options, so back we went, driving through the northern part of the state. The nice driver had a route that wouldn’t help either of us get where we wanted to go, so we parted ways. To this day I am grateful to that truck driver; he worried about us, left us with some food and a little bit of cash and warned us about the dangers of hitching, especially alone.

My goal was to hitch a ride to the Pacific Northwest, back to Seattle. With the help of a trucker at a stop, I got on the PA system and broadcast to all the truckers that I was looking for a ride to the west coast. The trucker who helped me insisted that I had a handle; he gave me the name “Blondie.” So as Blondie I appealed to the truckers that I was looking for a ride, any ride at all that would get me closer to home. “I was on the CB trying to find a ride to the Northwest and one guy said he’d take us but ‘nothing comes for free.’ Another guy said he’d like to talk about money and sex and frankly it makes me ill…I will be a joyous person when I see that beautiful mountain we call Rainier.” (Letter from me to my “druggie boyfriend from the road. Amazingly, it was in the middle of another notebook and I still have it). 

It didn’t take long at all to find someone to take us the next leg. This guy’s name was Wayne. Wayne took us into New Mexico and then into Arizona. Wayne offered us food and money for sex; he was not as nice as our first ride. We opted to go hungry. “I’m scared of this truck driver. He asked both of us to fuck him for money. He is hard up, let me tell you. Pisses me off. He said he’d buy us food but it wouldn’t be for free. It’s been over a day since I’ve eaten but I’m not even going to say I’m hungry.” (Second letter discovered to my “druggie boyfriend.”) My newcomer got a hold of her parents and they arranged to pick her up somewhere in Arizona. “We’re about 300 miles from Vegas and then it’s goodbye, Wayne!” (From same letter above). Wayne and I continued on into Nevada, where I was glad to leave him behind forever. 

The next driver had a big Atlas Van Lines rig. He had dark sunglasses and a creepy vibe that got all the more creepy when he finally took his shades off. There was something about his eyes…my intuition told me not to accept a ride from him but I ignored my gut and went with him anyway. He hadn’t outwardly said anything like some of the others. At any rate, better a scary trucker than risk staying in one place too long and getting caught, sent back to Straight. Again the Eagles played as we drove through Nevada and into California. He scared me. I finally pretended to be asleep, and he took that opportunity to put his hands all over my body. Paralyzed, I didn’t know what to do but to continue feigning sleep. The first chance I got, I jumped out and literally ran from him with a determined sense of self-preservation. Now that I knew his fingers traveled as easily as his eyes I couldn’t stay with him any longer.

So there I was in California, somewhere near San Jose. I was committed to staying sober – had in fact had many opportunities on my hitchhiking journey to drink, do drugs. My running away wasn’t about that. It was about not being held prisoner in a crazy house. “Being in Straight…feels like a dream. I can’t describe it, it just can’t be real.” (Same letter as above.) No, my running wasn’t about wanting to get high. It was about preserving my sense of self.  I thought that if I could prove I had changed my parents would let me come home, and I could go on with my life, improve it, get off the streets. Along the road I had continued to call my best “druggie” friend in Seattle and give her updates. I ended up talking to her mom. She was afraid for my safety, and offered to wire me money so I could take a Greyhound bus home and stop hitchhiking. I told her my location and she promised to send the money. 

I was terrified of getting caught. I had no idea what measures Straight would take to see me returned to their custody. On the road, in the rigs, I had felt a measure of anonymity. The fear in the rigs was of the truckers more than of being caught. But walking around in this small town in California (the exact name of which I can’t for the life of me recall), I felt paranoia and panic set back in. I had a really bad feeling about getting money at the Western Union, but I couldn’t see that I had a choice. I needed the money, I had promised my friend’s mom that I wouldn’t hitch anymore, and I frankly shared her fear that I would get raped again if I continued hitchhiking with truckers.  

I went to the Western Union and gave my code name to the clerk – I was “Peaches,” there to pick up money wired from Seattle. The clerk said it would be a couple minutes. My instinct told me something was off, so I turned to walk out the door just as a police car was just pulling up. They had found me by monitoring the Western Union offices.  Turns out my friend’s mom had used both my real name and my code name. 

The officer took me into the station, asked me a bunch of questions. I explained to him why I was on the road and what I was running from. I described Straight, and told him that I had 100 some days of sobriety and that I was simply trying to get home, start over, and never ever again see the inside of those institutional walls. I told him how Straight made me feel that I was going to have a psychotic break, that I disagreed with just about everything they said in there, that they made us feel ashamed for completely normal things ranging from reading cereal boxes to talking to members of the opposite sex to, god forbid, masturbation. (I still remember how it would be phrased by people who stood to “clear up” the fact they had masturbated the night before…”I avoided myself with feelings about myself last night.’” Huh?? What the fuck??? I never, ever stood and cleared up that I had masturbated, which I think is a normal and healthy activity, but I’m here to tell you that I had my first orgasm ever while imprisoned in Straight, masturbating, and avoiding as best I could everything around me.)

I was lucky. The police officer who picked me up was the nicest cop I’ve met before or since. He called my parents and explained my point of view to them; he really tried to get them to see. My parents, however, saw it differently. They believed in the program and had been warned that I would try to manipulate my way out, make it sound worse than it was, and on this point there would be no argument: it was go back to Straight or nothing. 

In the end the cop had no choice but to take me to a halfway house. He said someone would pick me up the next morning to take me to the airport and send me back to Dallas. As horrific as that prospect was, I appreciated him trying to help me and told him so.

My recollection of the halfway house is minimal. The house itself was medium security, I guess you’d say. Someone did an intake with me and told me the rules – which I can’t remember but they sure weren’t the Straight Rules, if you know what I’m saying. Escape seemed possible, but I felt resigned to going back. I didn’t want to live life as a runaway, didn’t want to live on the streets, and saw that I no longer had a home to return to even if I could physically get myself back to Seattle. 

I fell into an uneasy sleep, dreading the next day, the day I would be returned to the hell I had fought so hard to escape. I awoke to the doorbell ringing and knew that it was whoever Straight had arranged to take me to the airport. Immediately I understood that I couldn’t let it happen, that I was not going back, no matter what. I yelled down the stairs that I would just be a minute and then I jumped out a 2nd story window. Just like that. Fueled by adrenaline and an absolute terror of getting caught, again, I jumped the fence that surrounded the house and found myself in a wooded area. I ran through the woods as fast as I’d ever run in my life.  After running for a good while, I hid next to a large log and sat there, waiting for my heart to settle and my breath to return. And I started to pray.

As I’ve said before, I wasn’t raised in a religious home. I had never even been exposed to church much, except with my Grannie on Easter, that type of thing. I didn’t think much about God and I certainly didn’t think much of the Devil – wasn’t sure I believed in either. But on this day, hiding in those Californian woods, I prayed. I prayed that I would not get caught and that I would never get sent back to Straight. The very thought of it made me feel so trapped, so…crazy…and I felt so helpless and powerless against the machine that was Straight, that I did the only thing I could do at the time. I prayed.  And for good measure, since I wasn’t sure that either God or the Devil existed, I prayed to both. I remember disassociating, looking at myself from outside, thinking I had lost my mind, praying to the Devil. Then and there I offered up my soul. Begged the Devil to take it. I’d rather give it away than have it stolen from me.

Either the Devil didn’t want my soul or he doesn’t exist, because I was eventually caught again. I was walking down a street in that somewhere, California town, trying to figure out my next steps. I was 16 years old, on the run and with no idea what to do next. Turns out I didn’t have to come up with a plan. I saw the cop car rolling slowly down the street and knew it was coming for me. I had a coke can in my hand and I crushed it into my palm when I saw the car. It was over.  Sure enough, within seconds I was in the back of the car, heading back to the station.

I had some good luck in that, back at the station, I ran into the same cop who had picked me up earlier. He took over. He really did feel bad for me, but he wasn’t thrilled to hear that I had run, again. We sat and had a heart to heart in the small town jail. He told me that I had no choice but to go back to Straight, that there was no other way out for me. He said he believed in me, that he thought I’d grow up to be a strong and wonderful woman someday, but that first I had to put this all behind me. After all my time on the road, after all the different truckers and people I had met and all the fear I had felt, I was exhausted. I cried. I knew I was defeated, broken, and I knew he was right. I had no other choices. 

He told me that his boss wanted to lock me up in jail for the night until the Straight people could come get me. He told me he didn’t believe I belonged in jail, that he was willing to put his job on the line and return me to the halfway house instead, as long as I promised not to run. I was drained and could see the ultimate futility of running, so I promised him. I would not run. I would return to Straight and complete the program, put it behind me and move on with my life. With that promise I died a little inside; anyone who has been to Straight knows what that promise cost me to make. He gave me his card and asked me to contact him someday. I wish I had that card still.

The return to the halfway house, the arrival of the people who took me to the airport, and the plane ride to Dallas are a blur. I have no memory of any of it. What I remember is arriving in the Dallas airport and getting off the plane. My parents were there to greet me. They were very clear with me that I had a problem and that the only way I’d ever come home again was to complete the program. They believed in Straight, you see. Completely. They didn’t know at the time of the abuse, of the shady financial connections to Jeb Bush, the Reagans, Mel Sembler and the like. They didn’t know that Straight borrowed tactics right out of the Korean POW rulebook or that it was, pure and simple, a cult. They just knew they wanted me whole and alive and as far as they could see I had to, absolutely had to, finish the program, or else I’d have no life at all – certainly not one that included them.

We drove through Dallas and into Richardson. As we turned into that industrial complex that housed the Straight building, James Taylor’s “You’ve Got a Friend” came on the radio. I cried then, large, silent rolling tears that seemed to have no end. I’ve always loved that song and it seemed a cruel joke for it to be the background music for my surrender to the group of crazy people that, no matter how much they yelled out “love ya, Amy!” did not in fact love me at all. I had no friends here, only myself. And I committed to myself that I would get through the next year or maybe two of imprisonment and that I would somehow not lose myself in the process. I would stay sane, even through the imminent strip search, heckling and abuse that were sure to follow. I would play the game and be as “honest” as possible without losing that core, vital part of me that made me, me. I would beat them at their own fucking game and I would move on. And that is pretty much what I did.

The reentry process was horrific. The fact that I had “copped out” with my newcomer, endangered her and her sobriety, was on par with committing the original sin. The group could not, would not believe that I hadn’t relapsed while I was out. I put up a psychic veil of protection around me, endured the “in your face” treatment that went on for days, and moved on. I had kept a journal during my travels and fought with the staff that I should be able to keep it. Those were my writings, I said. Mine. And I hadn’t done drugs while I was on the road so there was no reason to take it from me. But of course they did, and I felt incredibly violated and angry – the fact that they could take my private thoughts and writings away infuriated me. (Although I did somehow manage to save the letters to my “druggie boyfriend” – I have no idea how I pulled that one off, but I found them in the middle of another notebook along with my MI books, which I still keep for some reason). Unbelievably, I was on First Phase that time for only 22 days. The drug tests had come back negative; I guess they figured maybe I wasn’t so full of shit after all. 

I was in Straight for 16 months. I entered at 16 and got out 5 months before my 18th birthday.  I kept the memory of dancing barefoot in the leaves in Oklahoma. I created new memories of dancing barefoot in a park in Dallas on 5th phase, listening to the Talking Heads on my Walkman, even though dancing was against the rules. I did little subversive acts like this to try to keep myself sane. To remember who I was, even on those days when I was buying it a little too much – clearing shit up in group that meant nothing, motivating to blast someone during open meeting night, giving speeches in high schools, talking like a robot in that odd and disturbing Straight speak, praying and writing to a God I didn’t believe in. It was a constant tightrope walk to keep my core intact as possible and at the same time to feel and be honest, and to “pass” for a Zombie Straightling well enough to advance through the phases and get out. I understood on some level all along that these people, not me, were the crazy ones.

Right before I graduated the program I started having a disturbing recurring dream. I’d had disturbing dreams the entire time I was there, but these new ones worried me. The entire dream was me, screaming, and tearing out my hair. That was it. It was terrifying and brilliant in its simplicity. I knew that if I didn’t get out soon I would actually, irretrievably snap, lose my mind. I found out after I graduated that Straight had thought I was ready for a while, but they were short on oldcomers and needed me to stay. Course they were also being paid hand over fist by my parents. 

After I graduated I came home to Seattle, went back to school, led a fairly normal life for a while. I shut the door on Straight and didn’t look back, figured I’d survived and it was over and done with. In my 30s, though, I started having severe panic attacks that would descend out of nowhere and completely debilitate me. I started to wonder if Straight had anything to do with it, and I started to do research. I found pages and pages of information, facts, statistics, and with that a growing awareness that Straight abused and tortured children, that this was fact, a shared experience we all, in varying levels of horrible, had endured. I learned that many of us developed anxiety and depression after Straight, that some of us had committed suicide, been put in jail, or were just having problems functioning in daily life. What I remember most of all is when I remembered.  Not that I remembered everything – there is still much of that time that is just blank for me. But it all became real one day when I came across the Rules – someone had posted them. The insanity of that place and what I had survived hit me like a bolt of thunder: I literally fell to my knees and cried and wailed and then cried some more. I was absolutely wrecked, but that was the beginning of my healing. It surprises me how much emotion Straight can bring even after all these years. I don’t talk about it much; it’s like a dirty little secret I hold, after all this time. 

I’m 42 now. I still suffer from panic, but I manage that with medication. I hate attending big meetings where they ask for a round of “introductions,” and even though I finally realized why (damn those open meetings!) the fear hasn’t left me. I don’t like to be confined or feel trapped, and I’m outside as often as possible. I often sit on my front porch, reading a book, all bundled up in the dead of winter because I’d rather be outside than inside my own living room. I dance, often, in my backyard, at work, in my living room. My life overall is pretty good, relatively stable. But all the good in my life is in spite of Straight, not because of it. Yes, Straight: I am strong. I am invincible. Can you hear me roaring? I know without a doubt that if I can survive you, I can survive anything. You can bend but never break me. No, you did not break me, but you did not save me either – but really, that was never your intention, was it?