- Where is the Book Available for Sale?
- Why Were You Sent to These Programs?
- What Were the Names of the Programs & Are They Still Open?
- How Have You Tried to Heal from Your Past?
- What Do You Do Now?
- Why Did You Write this Book?
- In the Book, Many Girls Have Nicknames. Did You Have One?
- What Music Did You Listen to While Writing this Book?
- How Has Your Childhood Shaped Who You Are Today?
- Who or What Inspired You to Keep Going Then? Now?
- If This Was a Movie, Which Actress Would You Want to Play You?
- What Are Your Favorite Books?
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I was a troubled kid, and I got into a lot of trouble. Starting around nine years old, I started fighting back against my dad, disrespecting my mom and sneaking out of the house to just roam the neighborhood.
At 12, I started sneaking out for parties and raves. I'd run away for a night or two, sometimes longer. That's when I was sent to the first institution, Ascent, a summer bootcamp in Naples, Idaho that has since been shut down. I came back traumatized from their bogus forms of therapy and extreme forms of punishment.
The new trauma coupled with continued unresolved issues at home led to more trouble. I spent the next two years in screaming matches with my family, running away, getting kicked out of schools, doing drugs and going in and out of juvie jail. Eventually I became a Ward of the State. Just before my 15th birthday, my mom collaborated with the court to place me in New Horizons' program "Escuela Caribe" in the Dominican Republic.
Ascent was the bootcamp I attended at age 12. It was in Naples, Idaho. It's part of CEDU (pronounced see-doo), which was eventually bought by Brown Schools. CEDU's origins go back to Synanon, a "rehab cult" founded in Santa Monica in 1958 by Charles Dederich. Ascent was closed in 2005.
New Horizons Youth Ministries was "the Program" Christian cult I was at from ages 14-17. It was located in Jarabacoa, Dominican Republic, Missanabie, Canada and Marion, Indiana.
New Horizons was founded in 1971 by Gordon C. Blossom, who made up all the strange rules and coined the term "culture shock therapy". In the book The Whisper: Some Secrets Shouldn't Be Kept, his daughter Shirley Jo Petersen writes about her father being diagnosed as a pedophile and recounts many occasions of him sexually abusing children and women.
Interestingly, Blossom and the Program were kicked out of Michigan before it landed in Indiana. It was also kicked out of Haiti before it landed in the Dominican Republic. Blossom's son, Tim, later took over operations of the program.
New Horizons and its properties were eventually shut down by 2011.
Even though these institutions have been shut down, many staff still work with youth today in other institutions.
The troubled teen industry is not well regulated and many programs like these still exist today. To learn more, visit Survivors of Institutional Abuse.
We were so rough and tumble in the DR, we didn't think our polite-sounding first names were properly representing us, so we took to calling ourselves by our last names, like soldiers or linebackers tend to do.
Most the girls called me "Ols" because my last name was "Olson". (In 2015, I legally changed my name from "Olson" to "Thomas" to shed my estranged father's name and honor my beloved Gramps, E. Michael Thomas [1919-2017].)
I believe Clam (Bridget) went a step further and gave me the nickname "Old School Ols" because, in her words, "I was always talking about 'back in the day."
A few years ago I was diagnosed with complex PTSD. The most successful path to healing I've experienced so far has been:
- talking through memories with former students
- going through personal trauma therapy, specifically EMDR. Learn more about EMDR therapy
- writing. This book started as a therapy exercise and has helped me tremendously.
I've learned trauma can live in your brain for decades, sometimes forever. Working through it is a journey, and I still have work to do today.
I guess I'm a writer! I left a marketing career in Chicago to move to Louisville, KY and take time off to process my trauma. This is when the book was officially birthed, although it has been swirling in my head for decades.
I live with my best friend and the love of my life, Thomas, and we run an organic, fair trade culinary spice business together (that he founded years ago).
I felt compelled to get my truth out on paper. Not everyone is loving that idea, including some people in my family, but I'm fine with that. They have had their own narratives for decades now. It's time for my truth to breath.
I wrote it first for myself, to get closer to my memories and process them in a more healthy way. I wanted to reacquaint with my teenage self and look her in the eye. The truth being out there is also one satisfying form of justice, because, while the cults have been shut down, there has been no real justice. Many staff of these places still work with children. Many parents and staff still deny abuse happened.
I also wrote it to better understand the past from other people's points of view, especially people in my family. I tried my best to put myself in their shoes, and represent them as the three-dimensional, complex people they are - we all are - instead of the people I thought they were when I was an angry teenager.
Additionally, and most importantly, I wrote this for those former students who don't have a voice today - too many have struggled to cope with the trauma and have died prematurely, and many still feel they can't talk openly about the emotional, psychological, physical or sexual abuse they experienced. I don't pretend to know their personal stories of survival, we all have our own even if we were at the same places, but I hope I did justice representing what these places really were like.
- More info about why I wrote this memoir: Behind the Scenes: The Making of Zero First
Music is a strange thing for me because the Christian cult I was in during my formative teenage years didn't let me listen to non-Christian music, so it's a bit of a blind spot for me. However, this book helped me get back into it.
I started to listening to music while I wrote and it helped me charge forward through the hard bits. I wrote a blog post where I share the songs I listened to (over and over again) while I wrote.
This is a doozy of a question. I'm still understanding how my trauma has affected me emotionally, and also physiologically. There's so much the scientific and therapeutic community is learning about trauma and its impact on the brain, especially the impact on a developing brain (the brain isn't fully developed until about age 25!). It's wild to me that we know more about the Universe we live in than our own human brains. That said, I'll share a some of the concrete things I know for sure, for good or bad (usually a mixture of both):
- Truth is very important to me. I can be unapologetic about it. I am driven by, and to it. This stems from being raised by a compulsive liar, and from being prevented from speaking the truth at the two cults I was sent to as a kid, especially the Christian cult I was at from ages 14-17 (New Horizons Youth Ministries).
- I have what most would describe as an authority problem, although I don't believe it's a "problem". I don't believe any person has authority over another fellow human being - whether that's my boss or the President of the United States. I have no problem questioning perceived authorities, and I believe that's critical. This attitude has actually helped me advance in my career, as I'm not afraid to push my ideas forward and challenge company leadership. It means I don't often make friends with people "at the top", but it's led to profitable results in business.
- I speak up when something is wrong, or I step in when someone needs help. It has landed me into a few hairy circumstances, but it's something I am compelled to do. Too many times, I sat quietly by and watched fellow students be abused in the Program. My shame for not doing anything fuels me to stand up and do the right thing (I hope always).
- I confront people and situations when I need to. I think confrontation is healthy. Passive aggressiveness and indirectness drives me nuts. If someone wrongs me or if I wrong them, I approach them and confront the situation head on. Sometimes it takes me some time to get there, but I do it.
- I've gotten involved in causes related to social justice and organizations that help at-risk youth. Some of my favorite non profits I've been a small part of include:
- Parents for Peace and Justice, a grass-roots anti-violence organization in Chicago that gives kids opportunity in disadvantaged communities through sports, and fights for justice for loved ones killed by violence.
- The Healing Corner, another Chicago grass-roots non-profit who shows up on corners susceptible to violence and offers "positive loitering" experiences for the community where they have cookouts, games for kids, give away school supplies, Halloween costumes, holiday present and so much more.
- I root for the underdog.
- Speaking of dogs, I am a dog lover. And cat lover. And animal lover in general. I have seen the ugliness in humans. I haven't seen that in animals. Don't get me wrong, I still love humans, I just adore animals and their open spirits. We have two rescue dogs and try to foster cats and dogs from the local shelter when we can.
- My brain settings are defaulted to live in extremes. Hot or cold. Black or white. In or out. Good or bad. I am not proud of it, but it's how my brain works since it was wired that way when it was developing. It's not a healthy or realistic way to live, but I'm working on finding more middle ground. It's gotten a lot better over the last decade as I've come to understand it instead of fight it, and now I'm working to re-wire my brain through EMDR therapy.
- I have a tendency to "disassociate". This is a subconscious coping mechanism my brain learned while I experienced childhood trauma. When I start to feel too much emotion, I can shut it down and swallow it into my gut. Then my brain kind of works on "automatic" (like when you're driving and suddenly you don't remember how you got from Point A to B), until I feel safe enough to emerge again. This is something I have gotten better at controlling/preventing/stopping, but I think it will be a work in progress. I am working on re-wiring my brain to allow me to feel safe enough to live more in the present moment.
- I'm performance-driven and can be a perfectionist to the point it exhausts me and people around me. Sometimes I am so set on a goal or task, I lose my emotion and become robotic (disassociated) and manic until I finish it (like cleaning the kitchen or working on a project at work). I'm working on this one too, and have gotten a lot better about it over the last decade.
- I constantly play "worst case scenario" in my head, scanning my surroundings for danger. This is part of my c-PTSD. I'm much better than where I was when I first left the program.
- I try to love people hard. I have lost too many friends. I try to remember we have limited time here on Earth.
- I am strong. I don't quit. I'm not easily intimidated.
When I was imprisoned in the cults:
- My Gramps' letters kept me going. He was the most amazing man. He died at 98 years old. He grew up in Chicago during the Depression, living in an attic with his many brothers and sisters. His father owned a bar and didn't pay off "the right" mobsters and was subsequently imprisoned during Prohibition. Gramps had to drop out of school (8th grade, I believe) to work and help feed the family. He then went and served in the Navy in World War II (including serving at Guadalcanal), and came back to Chicago where he married my wonderful Grandmother (who also served in WWII as a Wave, which was the women's branch of the United States Naval Reserve). He started his own house siding business and they raised five kids. He never complained about a thing and always had a positive attitude (and a joke ready for you).
- I had a theme song running through my head while I was at the Christian cult in the Dominican Republic. It's by Inaya Day and the chorus goes: "Keep pushin' on things are going to get better. it won't take long, keep-on pushin' to the top...". It was a constant buzz through my brain while I was doing things like scrubbing floors, digging ten-foot ditches for no reason or cutting jungle grass by hand with a machete for hours a day.
- My birth daughter inspires me to be a better person every day. I got pregnant by a not-so-great guy right after I came back from the program. I am 100% pro-choice (I need to say that in today's climate). My choice was to keep the pregnancy and give her up for adoption. I won't talk more about this because I want to protect her privacy, but in short, it was the most difficult and painful decision of my life. I loved her more than anything but I couldn't give her life she deserved. She has an amazing life and family, and I am so lucky to have a relationship with her and her mother. I cherish it, and her, more than anything in this world. She inspires me to be a better human on this planet.
- Gramps memory. Forever and always.
- Thomas, my partner and love of my life. He is a kind, compassionate, easy-going man who has taught me so much. I'm so grateful to him for supporting me throughout my complex healing process. It's not always pretty.
- My friends and family. I'm lucky to have some really special people in my life who've been cheering for me.
- My rescue dogs, Spot and Tulip. They remind me to not take myself too seriously and to enjoy life in the moment.
- Everyone who stands for truth and for what is right, especially when it's difficult. I'm constantly brought to tears by beautiful, courageous people in this world who fight for truth, for justice and for others. Here are a few who blow me away Galileo Galilei, Mahatma_Gandhi, Fred Hampton, Malala Yousafzai, Father Michael Pfleger, Irena Sendler, Rosa Parks.
A friend asked me this and it cracked me up. My response: I would like a teenage mashup version of Kevin James, Ellen Page and Sigourney Weaver please!
So many... here's some of my favorites:
- Educated, Tara Westover
- Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury
- Forever, by Pete Hamill
- Haunted, Chuck Palahniuk
- Jesus Land, Julia Scheeres
- The Devil in the White City, Eric Larson
- The Glass Castle, Jeannette Walls