Losing them, fixing them, forgetting to put them in
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I was a psychiatric nurse for twenty years, three of those spent at facilities for adolescents, and I can testify to the validity of Kenneth R. Rosen’s descriptions of therapy programs for “troubled teens” [“Sent Away,” interview by Finn Cohen, August 2021].
I left after the bad behavior of unqualified staff went unaddressed by the administration. There was a short supply of listening, respect, or integrity, and I hated to see the patients caught in the maw of institutional ignorance and greed. One of the doctors had been molesting adolescent girls for years; though he was reported many times, he still kept his license.
Oftentimes all one had to do was meet the family of the kids to realize what the problem was.
These kids were sometimes hard to like. The amount of rejection and physical abuse they suffered left them in a rage — a terrible, righteous rage. There was no one to advocate for them.
“Sent Away” reminded me of my experience, in the early 1980s, working at a dental practice that treated adolescents who were in a private therapeutic-treatment program. Though the kids were described to me as incorrigible, troubled youth, they were mostly personable and entertaining.
Being the single mom of a three-year-old daughter at the time, I didn’t give much thought to the program, the kids, or their parents. My assignment was to clean their teeth. We were briefed on how to manage the difficult patients: Rule #1: Once they were in the office, lock the doors so none of them could run away — which a couple attempted. Rule #2: Don’t leave them alone with sharp instruments within reach, because they might try to pocket something to use as a weapon or for picking locks. Rule #3: Don’t discuss the program’s treatment methods, staff, or living conditions.
Decades later I read about accusations of harsher-than-necessary treatment, which focused on peer confrontation, public humiliation, and extreme consequences for rule-breaking that bordered on abuse. The program has since been shut down. After reading Rosen’s interview I came across a disturbing 2017 documentary, The Last Stop, made by former residents of the program. Though it’s been almost thirty years, I recognized one of the kids in the film.
In the meantime I’d become the parent of a troubled twelve-year-old daughter. In 1992, for reasons I believed were justified, I sent her to a therapeutic wilderness program in Montana for four and a half months. It had been recommended by a highly regarded adolescent therapist, and I thought it would be better than waiting for further interactions with law enforcement, truancy, or running away. I was envisioning her eventual spiral toward incarceration or total self-destruction. I was determined to get “it” before “it” got me. Or her. I was a worn-out, scared, and desperate mother, trying to save her child.
Many variables affect which kids get sent away — and why. There are well-intentioned parents, and there are those who simply want to dump their kids somewhere. There are well-staffed and poorly staffed programs. There are kickback therapist referrals driven purely by dollars, and there are those who leave room for negotiating costs. Often enough, by the time a situation reaches a tipping point, it’s hard to keep a calm head. For many parents it’s a do-or-die moment that demands an immediate decision.
I prefer to think that, like myself, most parents’ primary intention is to save their kids from themselves. Success usually relies on the parents’ participation in that process, which means leaving their sense of infallibility at the door. The most effective treatment program my daughter was in required me to attend weekly meetings, no excuses. Honest exchange, forgiveness, and relationship adjustments are necessary to move forward.
A line in Kate Vieira’s essay “May You Bury Me” [August 2021] stopped me mid-bite of my marionberry pie: “Standing on a ladder held by a girl I was raising by myself.” I, too, am raising a daughter after separating from her father just days before COVID lockdown began, and I am humbled and grateful for the ways in which my four-year-old holds the ladder for me.
I fear sometimes that my love for my daughter is too much, like an overloaded late-summer tomato plant, and I appreciate how Vieira wisely highlights the interdependency of life, even as we seek to move beyond codependency. I look forward to reading her memoir and wish her many more beautiful seasons with her daughter.
The way Emma Dale describes her parents in her essay “Earth Perfected” [August 2021] is how I imagine our son sees my husband and me: as backwoods rubes who never left our small town and continue to live the same simple life we have for years. Though we’re happy and successful on our own terms — a retired teacher and a master of all things mechanical — we’re not urbane or worldly according to our son’s definition.
Dale is twenty years old; I hope she grows to appreciate her dad and his collards and dog food and USDA steaks. We parents are imperfect, but we still hope for acknowledgment that we are doing our best.
My advice to Dale: Get the tattoo. Sit on the lawn chair with your dad. Help your mom with the puzzle.
No Readers Write has gripped me more than the one on “Summer Jobs” [August 2021]. The devastating pieces ignited my already-well-established passion for justice: A premed student who became a humane educator. A convict who was so adamantly against a pig farmer’s “cold indifference to suffering” that he comforted a piglet that had been tortured. An undergrad researcher who asked forgiveness from a tree she had injured “in the name of science.” A certified nurse’s aide who described the horrifying birthing practices of the 1960s. A factory worker who quit after discovering she was contributing to the creation of bombs.
The list goes on. I’m grateful to everyone who wrote in; they not only shared their stories, but showed us it doesn’t have to be this way.
If I’d been warned about Andre Dubus III’s “Ghost Dogs” [July 2021], I wouldn’t have read it. But once I’d started, I couldn’t stop. His words tugged me through each heart-wrenching recollection of his dogs’ pathetic fates.
As I neared the end of the essay and read about Rico’s triumphant endurance, I understood Dubus was writing about his own suffering, not so much that of his dogs. Still, three days later, I am haunted by those dogs, and I’m hugging my own aging, loving canine closer to me as I write.
In 2015 I participated in a weeklong writing workshop with Andre Dubus III. For an in-class exercise I wrote about my two cats, whom I had euthanized in the weeks prior. After I read my piece aloud, Dubus said, “I don’t even like dogs, but the limping, the bad teeth . . . that got to me.”
“Cats,” another student politely corrected him.
Dubus was not my biggest fan, in part because we disagreed about the value of research when writing personal essays. Nonetheless, his “Ghost Dogs” is a beautiful essay. I come to it as a person who once slapped a childhood dog for not coming when called. (When I finally stand before Saint Peter, I will be sobbing with remorse about the pain and surprise I saw in the dog’s eyes.) I also come as someone who takes walks with my beloved pit bull–pointer, Santiago, whose curiosity and joy buoy me every day. And I come as a person with family members and friends who have suffered violent, alcoholic parents, sexual molestation, and bullying. All of which is to say: I am human.
Like Dubus, I have ghost dogs. So does everyone I know. I’m grateful to him for sharing something that can unlock the deep truth inside someone else.
As someone who may love dogs more than people, I was saddened and repulsed by parts of “Ghost Dogs,” yet I felt compassion for Andre Dubus III’s traumatic experiences with dogs throughout his life.
I hope Dubus understands that his dog, Rico, did it for him. Rico knew what he was doing: he disappeared long enough to open the “iron door” that Dubus has created to close himself off from caring for dogs. Kudos to Rico!