It’s three a.m. when two hulking men barge into your room and aggressively wake you. They demand you do as they say. You are told to follow them into a car, and at this point it’s evident that you have no other option. You pile into a black SUV without saying goodbye to your family and have no idea where you are going.
This is what thousands of American teenagers experience upon entering the punitive and rigorous curriculums of wilderness therapy programs, most of which operate outside government or psychiatric regulation. Author Kenneth R. Rosen was one such teenager. Rosen’s personal experience in the alternative therapy industry, which he wrote about at Narratively, helped feed the reporting that would eventually manifest in his upcoming book, Troubled, out on January 12th, 2021.
Over the course of the book, Rosen follows a small handful of young adults through their treatment and eventual release, shedding long-overdue light on the aggressive treatment protocols. Rosen talked to Narratively about reporting on such a personal topic and the problems with youth rehabilitation programs.
Narratively: Your book, Troubled, is both heavily reported and deeply personal. How did you navigate the line between the two processes and ultimately make the decision to veer away from a more traditional memoir?
Kenneth R. Rosen: I guess it didn’t feel like my story bore out enough of a narrative to tell the stories that needed to be told. That very particular struggle a lot of children face going into the program – for me it was depression and minor substance abuse – but there was so much more going on at the programs. I wanted to find four or five former clients who really encapsulated all the different types of people who had gone through it and who had either made it out okay or didn’t.
Narratively: In your author’s note, you mention that many former clients and program staff were reluctant to talk with you. Tell me about some of the reporting challenges you faced along the way and how you were eventually able to meet them?
Rosen: In the beginning, I felt like I didn’t have a right to ask these sorts of questions and barge in on these people’s lives. For two of the characters in the book, I changed their name and identifying features because they want to move past the programs and that part of their life. To have something on the record about having been in these programs could potentially be detrimental in job searches or security or anything like that. A lot of the people I spoke to ended up asking to not be on the record. At some point, I got a lot of phone calls in the middle of the night from different sources who were asking me to delete all of the audio, worried that it would fall into the hands of someone else.
Narratively: While some publications like Mother Jones and the Huffington Post have investigated abuses and even fatalities at some of these programs, they have yet to garner widespread public attention. You mention at the start of Troubled that many still remain in operation. Why do you think some of these programs still haven’t been held accountable?
Rosen: There was an instance of the Massachusetts State Police investigating a program that I had gone to in the Berkshires and the investigator reached out to the detective, reached out to two or three former students who had complained about emotional trauma. The investigator after a while did nothing because they couldn’t quantify what emotional trauma was. That’s in part the reality; the issues that these children leave these programs with are essentially the same ones they enter the program with or worse. So how do you place blame on a program for exacerbating an already prevalent problem?
In the book, I argue that there’s only so much you can do before you realize that you’re starting to fail, and that to continue to try, despite failure, is, in the end, going to be more detrimental. So, I feel like the programs that are still active are there because it’s hard to prosecute something that is intangible.
Narratively: As you outline in the text, many wilderness therapy clients are whisked away in the night without forewarning. In your experience and observation, what leads families to do this?
Rosen: It’s exasperation. They’re worn out or burnt out. They have tried everything.. They’ve tried private counseling, they’ve tried group counseling. They’ve tried AA or NA. They tried every acronym that you could think of, all different types of therapy. Believe me, they know it’s a drastic choice to send their children away in such a caustic and rupterous way, but they were left without choice. As a parent myself, I can understand. I’ve also talked to my parents a lot about their choice to send me away, and to other parents who decided to send their children away. They were reassured over and over again that they were making the right choice, by the school counselors and by educational consultants who often lead parents to these programs.
One of the issues the parents seem to overlook is a hard look at the family itself. What is driving the child to be this way? What is happening at home or in school or in their community that may be leading them down a desperate path? Every single client without fail had either a history of abuse or childhood trauma or sexual violence. It was awful to hear about, and then to think that the parents turned around and felt like the only answer is to fix the child and not the home situation is beyond me.
Narratively: As you explain in the book, many instructors at both wilderness therapy and residential programs are unlicensed. The practices they employ are punitive and often far outside the modern-day guidelines for clinical psychology, and yet they operate under the term “therapy.” What are the ramifications of using the term therapy so loosely?
Rosen: When you call any practice therapy, you run the risk of legitimizing it. I think so many years of calling wilderness therapy therapy, calling it residential treatment therapy, calling it therapeutic boarding school, you run the risk of making it so casual that it answers the question itself. Which is, is this useful? Well, it’s therapy, it’ll take, you know, it’s a different type of treatment and, and therefore it’ll serve the purposes and your needs.
Narratively: In Avery’s experience in Troubled, she was lumped together in a cohort of people with varying traumas, yet they all seemed to be treated under the same curriculum. What are the implications of this practice?
Rosen: From the very beginning of the book, I make the point to note that if you treat someone as though they are troubled, the likelihood that they’ll remain or become troubled is very high. To sit in their environment day in and day out and be told you’re a bad kid, you need to be changed, you need to be fixed, is brutal. It’s on the verge of being almost like brainwashing in a way, almost very cultish. It’s not to say that some of the kids who had severe social and psychological issues didn’t get treatment. They were sent to the worst programs, but at those programs, you just have that type of case mixed in with worse cases, with all the worst types of cases.
Narratively: What are ways we can restructure our schools to disrupt this pipeline and better accommodate kids who have been labeled as “troubled?”
Rosen: I am hopeful in so far as thinking there are state-funded, regulated inpatient and outpatient programs that are overseen by child rights advocates, or that are run by licensed professionals who have years of experience with child development.
I had never quite understood why parents didn’t choose those options. Maybe they just didn’t seem as glamorous or maybe they didn’t seem as effective because these programs are surely not inexpensive. I think that if anything can be taken from the book, it’s that the family unit needs to be at its strongest for the children to survive.
This interview has been condensed for clarity
To spotlight all the exciting book projects out there by Narratively contributors, including Kenneth R. Rosen’s important book Troubled: The Failed Promise of America’s Behavioral Treatment Programs, we created The Narratively Bookshop. When you buy any book from the Narratively Bookshop, 10% of the purchase price goes to Narratively, helping us publish lots more great stories, and another 10% goes to supporting independent bookstores.