Help At Any Cost by Maia Szalavitz (Riverhead Books, 325 pages, $25.95)
Under what moral system would it be considered perfectly reasonable to torture children, both physically and emotionally, sometimes to death? What moral system would insist such actions are the best thing for those children?
Maia Szalavitz's book "Help At Any Cost" doesn't directly ask or answer those questions, but the questions lurk around the margins of Szalavitz's engaging text, as she explores how "tough love" morphed from a cult-like catch-phrase to a hugely profitable industry.
The coercive treatment programs examined in the book claim to deal with issues beyond drugs, and some kids end up in such programs for years at a time even though they never tried drugs.
But drugs are never far from the subject at hand (with some young people being dragged into programs for merely dressing like "druggies"), offering disturbing clues to the moral sensibility guiding the drug war itself.
The financial and emotional exploitation of a family in crisis serves as the starting point for many of the episodes described in the book. Things generally get worse from there.
The author interviewed hundreds of people involved with programs such as STRAIGHT and WWASP, both those who were coerced into the programs and their parents, as well as employees of the programs. The stories of shattered families and remorseful parents who thought they were doing the best for their kids can be heart-breaking to read.
Imagine the pain of Sally Bacon, who sent her 16-year-old son off to a wilderness treatment experience from which he would not return alive, as she read the blood-spattered pages of a journal describing the torment of his experience, and knowing that she ignored his pleas for help (as instructed by staff from the wilderness program), precisely when he needed her most.
Difficult as episodes like that are to read, particularly if you are a parent, Szalavitz has performed an important service for those want to understand both the psychology and morality of the drug war.
While drugs and drug culture are frequently blamed for moral decay, "Help At Any Cost" shows a moral code within the tough love movement which is fluid to the point of nihilism.
The stated goal of the programs is behavior modification and personality change. Adolescents are supposed to come back from the programs literally as different people, though the always fact-based Szalavitz finds no evidence to show such efforts succeeding. While there are anecdotal success stories, the anecdotal failure stories are more convincing.
Anyone who claims to know how to properly rearrange another individual's personality claims God-like insight. Starting from that position, and insisting that they are saving the other person from themselves, it's not hard to see how clearly immoral behavior can come to be justified.
And there's a disgusting amount of immoral behavior described at these treatment facilities: Past sexual abuse is used as an emotional weapon; basic nutrition is withheld; privacy is denied 24 hours a day; physical attacks are encouraged; and acute humiliation is viewed as therapy.
Even after deaths in such programs and former clients being diagnosed problems like post-traumatic stress disorder, some tough love advocates still refuse to acknowledge any shortcomings.
One section of the book shows how parents who committed their children to one coercive program were themselves subjected to mind-control techniques during weekend-long seminars. "From the very beginning of the seminar, efforts were made to undermine our current belief systems and values. We were told early in the game that our current belief system was what was causing our problems in life," one parent reported after attending a seminar.
The parent was told by one of the seminar speakers, "There is no right or wrong, only what works and what doesn't work."
While most of the book consists of straight reporting, Szalavitz offers pointed analysis at the end. Regarding the seminar speaker who said, "There is no right and wrong," Szalavitz pulls no punches:
"This is unquestionably a sociopathic ideology: it means that people are morally justified in doing whatever they believe 'works' and that they aren't responsible for the harm this may cause to others, because others' own choices put them in whatever situation they now find themselves. While many of the other programs are less obvious about presenting these ideas, they all teach that the ends justify the means and that altruism is foolish."
Her point is illustrated repeatedly in stories from the facilities, particularly by one anecdote from a harsh treatment center in Jamaica for boys. A rumor spread among the group that if anyone died, the program would be shut down for six months. So some desperate boys made a detailed plan to murder the weakest of their cohorts.
The plot was stopped before it could be carried out, but the idea that even troubled teens would contemplate such a thing shows the real way these programs influence young people.
Hatred of certain drugs and their users seems to be the prime moral directive of the tough love movement. Like anything that defines itself strictly by what it hates, that movement, along with the larger drug war, remain exercises in fundamental amorality.
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