by Marc Polonsky
The Seed was a controversial behavior modification program, euphemistically called a “drug rehabilitation center,” that flourished in South Florida in the early 1970s. Founded by recovering alcoholic Art Barker, the Seed’s methodologies were apparently modeled after Chuck Dederich’s Synanon, though Barker himself was from Alcoholics Anonymous.
The Seed may have been the first of its kind, a “treatment program” for teens and adolescents, administered by unlicensed staff, that utilized coercive thought reform techniques: aggressive confrontation, intimidation, continual verbal abuse, systematic sleep deprivation, highly restricted access to the bathroom, the disallowing of even a moment’s private thought (even the bathroom was not private), and so on. The objective was to tear down a teen’s sense of self and replace it with the corporate identity of a “Seedling.”
Today, dozens or even hundreds of Seed spin-off programs are in operation throughout the United States and abroad. (Some Seed spin-offs, like the Seed itself, are now defunct.) By most accounts, these programs are even much harsher than the Seed was.
For me, the Seed was harsh enough. My personal story follows, along with a detailed description of the Seed program.
I will conclude with some remarks and observations about the plight of teens in thought reform programs today.
I was 14 and a half years old. It was October, 1972, and I had just begun the ninth grade. My experience with drugs consisted of having tried marijuana about ten times and drinking wine perhaps five. My parents were concerned about the company I was keeping and my disrespectful attitude towards them. My sister too, a year and a half my senior, was a source of worry to them for her use of drugs and her rebellious attitude.
I was in my science class one afternoon when a note arrived, summoning me to the dean’s office. When I got to the dean’s office my sister was there also. “Mommy needs us,” she said, and I could tell by her eyes that this was the message she’d received, that she knew no more about it than I, and that she too felt vague apprehension, perhaps of some family tragedy. I certainly sensed something ominous. I imagined my grandmother might be very sick, or perhaps even dying.
My sister and I sat outside in front of the school for a few minutes until my parents pulled up. There were two other adults with them, a couple who were introduced to us as Mr. and Mrs. J. I knew immediately, from my parents’ pleasant, jovial air, that my grandmother had not died nor had any other terrible thing occurred. I was relieved.
My sister and I got in the back seat, and I don’t think either of us noticed anything unusual about Mrs. J taking the window seat next to my sister and Mr. J getting in on the other side next to me. This was of course a precautionary measure by the four adults in case one of us should try to escape out of the car before we reached the Seed. I later learned that Mr. and Mrs. J already had two sons in the Seed who had previously met with and impressed my parents with their politeness and their good-natured, clean-cut appearance. The type of assistance the J’s were giving my parents in this instance was standard for fellow Seed parents.
In any case they had nothing to worry about. My sister and I had lightened up considerably upon seeing my parents’ cheerful attitude. My parents let us try to guess where we were going. About halfway there my mother gave my sister a hint: “Remember that news story we saw on TV the other night?” My sister replied, “Oh, the Seed.” and it was confirmed.
My sister and I weren’t the slightest bit alarmed, because we were both quite ignorant of what the Seed really was. All we had heard was that it was a drug rehabilitation center. My conception of a drug rehabilitation center was a place where people came when they were addicted to drugs, a place that helped people who were unfit to function in the world. I pictured arts and crafts lessons, cooking, etc. We imagined that we were merely being taken to see this place for some reason. Maybe our parents wanted to scare us away from experimenting with drugs by showing us what the addicts looked like. I mentioned to my father that I was planning to go to a chess club that afternoon with a friend and did not want to be detained for too long.
We arrived at the Seed. It was an old warehouse building surrounded by a chain link fence. There were two young men sitting on chairs by the driveway who halted us for a moment, exchanged a word or two with my parents, and then let us drive in and park.
In the reception office a middle-aged woman named Betty sat down with my parents, my sister, and me. She addressed my sister first, asking her age, grade, and the kinds of drugs she had used. My sister answered frankly. There followed a peculiar conversation between the two of them during which my parents and I were silent (except for my parents’ interjecting a word or two). This conversation essentially consisted of Betty aiming insulting remarks at my sister about her character and her lifestyle, for no apparent reason other than to goad her. My sister’s first reaction was astonishment, and then reciprocal hostility. It is hard to say what the point of it was except perhaps to prepare my sister for what was in store or (and this I strongly suspect) to provide an opportunity for this woman to “play the Seedling.” Let me explain what I mean by this.
Betty was a Seed mother who had been, I suppose, exceptionally enthusiastic and consequently assimilated into the organization. She knew the attitude the Seed always took to newcomers and this was her opportunity to represent that attitude.
Here and there, people were coming in and out of the office: other Seedlings. Perhaps one of them would call out a greeting to Betty or simply convey a brief message to her. At the end of each of these tiny interactions Betty said in a singsong voice, “I lo-ove you.” “I love you” was said by Seedlings to each other always after each and every interchange, and the way Betty said it, in a chirpy but unmelodic sing-song, was one of the standard ways it was often said.
Toward the end of this prickly conversation between Betty and my sister, it was revealed to my sister and me that we would be staying at the Seed for a while, and that we had no choice. I was shocked but I imagined we would certainly get out soon, once the Seed saw we were not “druggies.” I simply had no conception of what was really happening. I even said to my sister, who was quite upset, “It’s okay. We’ll just agree with what they say and then we can go,” thinking they would tell us drugs were bad and we shouldn’t use them.
Betty finally got around to me. When she asked me what drugs I had used, and I told her, she said sweetly “Don’t bullshit me” and looked me sharply in the eye in a way that seemed meant to inspire fear and awe. I replied, thinking myself clever, “I wouldn’t baloney you.” I was soon to learn just how clever it was to get clever in the Seed.
While Betty was “doing my intake,” my sister had to use the bathroom. She was accompanied there by a female Seedling. A few minutes later a female Seed “staff member” approached my parents and regretfully informed them that my sister’s initial attitude was “really rotten.” She explained: “We have a rule here that when a newcomer goes to the bathroom someone must be there to hold her hand. Your daughter didn’t accept this so she swung at the other girl.”
My sister and I were each taken to a room to be searched. I had to strip and I was relieved of keys and money, which were turned over to my parents. Shortly thereafter we were led to the room where all the Seedlings were (commonly known as the group), a long stark white cement room with a gray floor. The windows were all eight or nine feet above the floor, and the two doors were well secured by Seed staff. A sign on the wall proclaimed “You’re not alone anymore” and the only other ornaments were signs listing the “three steps” and the “seven steps” (which will be explained later).
About 300 young people, ranging in age from about 12 to 26 (average 16-17), sat in rows of hard-backed fold-out chairs, facing the “rap leader” who sat on a high stool, holding a microphone. Boys and girls (always referred to as “guys and chicks” in the Seed) were separated by a wide aisle down the middle of the room. Around the room Seed staff members stood against the wall, male staff members on one side, female staffers on the other.
A “rap” was in progress when my sister and I entered. The rap leader would make comments into the microphone whereupon everyone in the group would raise their hands enthusiastically, and then someone would be called on by the rap leader to “participate.”
The rap was briefly interrupted upon our arrival. We were led to stand in front of the group and we were introduced: “This is Judy. She’s done pot, hash . . . And this is Marc. He says he’s only done pot.” Then the group greeted us in unison with a resounding “Love ya, Judy and Marc!” and we were led to seats in the front rows of our respective sections.
This is how newcomers were always introduced and welcomed into the Seed.
I do not remember much of that first rap I ever sat through. The rap leader was a staff member named Danny. (Raps were always led by staff members.) At first my sister and I exchanged glances every few minutes but this was soon put a stop to. Each of us was approached by a friendly male staff member who explained we were not to do this. At the very outset, one was treated somewhat gently in the Seed. This generally lasted a day or two.
I think the subject of this particular rap was probably “happiness” because I vaguely recall someone standing and gushing “..and then we can all be like Art Barker and go out there and change the world!!” It was generally in the “love” and “happiness” raps that such ebullient declarations were made.
Art Barker is the ex-alcoholic who founded the Seed. He was revered in the group as “the strongest.” He rarely came before the group himself. Whenever he did, as soon as he was spotted in the room, ecstatic shouts of “Love ya, Art!!” erupted throughout the room. Barker, a former stand-up comedian and recovering alcoholic, was a charming, energetic, often vulgar, thoroughly charismatic man.
As for “raps,” there were ten to twelve standard subjects. Some were “love,” “happiness,” “games,” “old friends,” “the three steps,” “the seven steps,” “conning,” “analyzing and justifying,” and “honesty.” (The nature of “raps” will be further elucidated a bit later in this account.)
The rap and the Seed day ended in the usual manner, which I shortly got used to. First, when the rap concluded, a few songs were sung. There was a limited repertoire of songs sung in the Seed, innocuous stuff such as “Zipitee-doo-dah.” When songs were sung, everyone put their arms around the shoulders of the two people next to them and sang with great gusto.
After a few songs the rap leader asked, “Who wants to say why we sing ‘Jingle Bells’?” and everyone’s hands flew up, many Seedlings making eager inarticulate sounds as their arms pumped the air. When the lucky person was chosen, he got to stand up and shout, “We sing ‘Jingle Bells’ because every day we’re straight it’s like Christmas!!” whereupon the group applauded wildly and roared into a chorus of the song.
After this came the announcements. Some announcements served to inform certain Seedlings that they had reached the next stage in the program. This was done in the following manner:
The rap leader might say, “John Jones, Kate Green, Molly Smith, stand up.” A pregnant pause. “You all go back to school tomorrow.” Hearty applause followed and the fortunate few were patted, hugged, and congratulated by those sitting around them.
The other announcements were to tell newcomers whom they would be going home with. For example:
“Martin Ivory, stand up.” (He stands.) “You’re going home with Jack Potter.” (Jack stands and waves to the newcomer. The group says, “Love you, Jack.” They both sit down.) And so on one by one.
Then everyone stood and joined hands to recite the Lord’s Prayer.
Then the rap leader said, “Okay, all oldcomers picking up newcomers, pick ’em up.” The Seedlings who were living at home and had newcomers in their charge would come around to where their newcomers were sitting. The corresponding newcomer got up and the oldcomer placed a hand on a male newcomer’s shoulder, or took a female newcomer’s hand. In this manner the oldcomers with newcomers were filed out the door. Then everyone else was allowed to go.
My first night, I went home with a young man named Aron. Aron was 15 and had only been in the Seed a little over 30 days himself. I tried to explain to him that I was not a druggie, but he insisted I was a druggie, by the Seed’s definition, even if I had only smoked pot once. Or, for that matter, even if I only had what they called “a druggie attitude.” Aron was not abusive; it was my first night and I had a lot to learn. In fact, Aron was a kind individual who did not really want to get tough. The toughest thing Aron ever said was when I told him I thought my attitude was fine and he replied, “Your attitude sucks. Listen. Don’t argue with me. Your attitude sucks.” “Your attitude sucks” were watchwords in the Seed. They applied to all newcomers.
I slept on the floor of Aron’s bedroom that night, in his parents’ house. He had removed the handles from the windows and he slept with his bed across the door. All newcomers are similarly imprisoned in the first stage of the program, with varying degrees of security. At this point I still felt it was all a mistake and was entertaining hopes of getting back home and to school very soon. I thought that the Seed was probably a good place for some people but that I obviously did not belong there.
The stages of The Seed program
I will now digress from my own story and describe the different stages of the Seed program, followed by a description of what generally took place at the Seed during the day.
There was no time limit for any stage; one did not progress forward in the program until the Seed staff determined that one was ready. There were, however, time minimums.
The first stage of the program was “newcomer-living-away-from-home.” During this stage, the newcomer was at the Seed, in the group, from 10:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m. six days a week and from 12 to 10 on Sundays. He (or she) was never allowed to be alone, even to use the bathroom. He lived with an “oldcomer” whose duty, before and after Seed hours, was to persuade the newcomer on intimate terms that his previous life was characterized by dishonor, dishonesty, pettiness, insecurity, and meanness, and that he should henceforth adopt the Seed’s philosophy and become “straight” (a term that signified a great deal more than merely refraining from drug use). It was also the oldcomer’s responsibility to give his newcomer(s) a place to sleep that would not afford an opportunity to run away, and to feed him/them when appropriate.
When Seed staff decided, after a minimum of 14 days (or a minimum of 30 days for those sent to the Seed through the courts), that a newcomer could be trusted on his own, and had been sufficiently persuaded that he was wrong and the Seed was right, the newcomer was allowed to go home and live with his parents. But he still had to report to the Seed all day every day.
Next he was allowed to go back to school, but he continued to report to the Seed immediately after school and stay there until 10 p.m. every day.
Finally he was put on his “three months” and was now called an “oldcomer,” as opposed to merely a “newcomer living at home.” (At any stage during which he was living at home though, he was eligible to take home newcomers, and be their “oldcomer.” ) This stage was called “three months” because three months was the minimum amount of time it had to last. (For those sent to the Seed by the courts, the minimum time was six months.) During this stage he only needed to report to the Seed three evenings a week, for the evening rap from 7 to 10, and for one full weekend day. In his free time, if he wished to go out to a movie or to go out anywhere without his parents, other than to school, he had to first obtain permission from the Seed.
This permission was usually granted if it involved going out with another Seedling of the same sex, or an extra-curricular activity at school. Other kinds of permissions, such as one I requested once to attend a youth group meeting, were generally refused. Most Seedlings knew not to ask for them.
Finally the Seedling was allowed “off his program” and had achieved the status of “oldtimer.”
At any of these stages, however, for a variety of real or imaginary transgressions, a Seedling could be demoted back to an earlier stage of the program for a “refresher,” or even started over at the very beginning.
The Seed day
The Seed day began at 10 a.m. by which time everyone was seated in the large warehouse room that I described earlier. The first activity, barring possibly a few songs, was the “morning rap,” which lasted a little over two hours. The rap leader sat on a stool in front of the group and called on people to stand, “participate,” and sit down again. Everyone who had been in the Seed more than three days had their hand raised to participate at all times (except when someone else was already talking). This was because everyone was told as a newcomer, “You should always have something to say or else you’re just copping out.”
During the first three days of one’s program, one was not allowed to actually participate, but had to simply sit in the group and listen. By the end of these three days one was expected to understand what is going on.
Staff members were stationed around the room. They made sure everyone was paying attention to the person speaking–not talking, daydreaming, or sleeping. If someone had to use the bathroom he had to raise his hand and wait for the nearest staff member to call on him. Staff members could easily tell whether someone was raising a hand to participate in the rap or raising a hand for the bathroom. One who had to go to the bathroom was looking at the nearest staff member and raising his hand toward that staff member. Usually, although the staff member would notice him right away, he would have to wait at least a few minutes. Often he would have to wait much longer if the staff member did not feel he had been ” working,” i.e. paying 100% attention to the rap and participating “honestly.”
If a newcomer living away from home had to use the bathroom the staff member would also have to pick someone to take him there. That is, someone who had been around for a while had to place a hand on the newcomer’s shoulder, walk him to the toilet, and walk him back.
Incidentally, staff members were all people who had been through the Seed themselves.
Some of the standard “raps” were these:
- “Old Friends”: also known as “old druggie friends.” This rap was about the ways in which you and your old friends “used” each other (for drugs, money, status, etc.) and how you pretended to be friends while secretly despising each other and talking behind each other’s backs. There were no two sides to this. No one ever stood up to say, “Well so-and-so was really a good friend and we really loved each other helped each other out.” If anyone had said such a thing he would have been cut down immediately by the rap leader and possibly made to stand for a while to be abused by the group also. Such a comment was obviously not “honest”…
- “Honesty”: The first and most important rule in the Seed was honesty and the Seed defined what you were thinking if you were honest with yourself. Honesty meant admitting you were “into acceptance” before coming to the Seed, that you were “full of shit” before coming to the Seed, that all your relationships had been “bullshit,” that you had been horrible to your parents who loved you, that you were a dishonest, insecure, unkind, thoroughly worthless mess before you were fortunate enough to have landed in the Seed. A frequent subtheme in this rap was “honesty vs. truth” ; i.e. how you used the truth to distort honesty by taking facts out of context and painting dishonest pictures for people, usually your parents.
- “Love”: This rap would normally start out with comparisons of what you used to think love was to the real love that you had found in the Seed. Then it would proceed to “how real love makes you feel” whereupon people would begin to get very happy and excited. There would be many ecstatic comments about the “vibes” in the room.
- “The Three Steps”: The three steps were: think think think, first things first, and easy does it. Each of these steps was examined one at a time, with people participating as to what “think think think,” or one of the other steps meant to them.
- “The Seven Steps”: These steps were adapted from AA’s twelve steps. The first step, “We admitted we were powerless over drugs,” usually evoked comments like, “When someone offered me a joint I could never refuse because I wanted to be accepted.”
- “Conning”: If someone was merely parroting the Seed philosophy, saying what one was supposed to say without really subscribing to it, this was conning. During this rap, everyone would participate about how they had once tried to con the Seed. But this was, of course, impossible because “everyone knows just where you’re at.” Seedlings were simply too supremely “aware” and they could spot a con a mile away. Seedlings were, in fact, the most aware people in the world, much more aware than even their parents. Of course we were not supposed to let on to our parents that this was the case, but Seedlings were “superior human beings.” All of this was stated explicitly.
- “Analyzing and Justifying”: These two bad habits, though an inseparable pair, were discussed one at a time. Analyzing was taking things apart, mixing them up so as to make them confusing. Justifying was what you achieved by doing this. You analyzed your past actions to make it seem as if you had had good or honest intentions. Or you analyzed what the Seed was telling you and tried to construe it in such a way that the Seed was wrong and you were right, although you knew in your soul it was vice-versa and that you were an asshole. (Everyone was an asshole before they came to the Seed. Most everyone had to proclaim it in the group at least once before they got to go home.)
- “Games”: Everyone, if they were honest, had to admit they had played all sorts of games: “attention games,” “prove-you-love-me games,” and others. I cannot remember them all; there were about four or five basic ones. The ones I have listed are self-explanatory.
- “Happiness”: Basically a rap about what happiness is and what makes you happy. When this rap came up it was, in a sense, a break. Like “love,” happiness raps elicited exuberant participation and frequent rejoicing in “the vibes.”
- “Potential”: Basically a rap on using it, now that you are a Seedling, rather than letting it stagnate as you did “when you were a druggie.” (Other common references to one’s pre-Seed days: “When I was on the streets,” “on the outside.” )
- “The Serenity Prayer” is of course, “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” This was another one-line-at-a-time rap, with special focus on the words “serenity,” “courage,” and “wisdom.” For example: courage to tell your old friends you don’t want to talk to them.
As I have mentioned, sleeping and daydreaming during these raps was strictly prohibited. Sleep (although virtually everyone was deprived of it) was deemed unnecessary; it was merely a way of “copping out of the rap.” If you saw someone sleeping nearby you were supposed to shake him awake, as he would unfailingly do for you. Daydreaming, or “getting into your head,” was also pounced on immediately. If someone was caught looking like he was not paying attention to the rap, the rap leader or a nearby staff member would shout, “Hey! Get out of your head!”
“In your head” was, in fact, considered a very bad place to be even if you were not in the middle of a rap, even if there was nothing specifically calling for your attention in a given moment. Just by the look on your face, any other Seedling would be able to tell if you were “getting into your head” and would say, “Hey, get out of your head!”
“Getting into your head” really meant any kind of introspection, and the give-away was an inward, perhaps even zoned-out facial expression. Private reflection and introspection were counterproductive, because they inexorably led to “analyzing and justifying” and also to “fantasizing” (another watchword), which was deemed a perilous waste of time.
During any of these raps, special events could occur. One person, whom the rap leader disliked or who was exceptionally unwilling to be “honest,” might be “stood up.” This person would be made to stand while the group raised their hands to take turns telling him how appalling he was, with abusive language, name calling, derision, sneering, and much profanity. Profanity was common, and even implicitly encouraged, in the Seed.
Sometimes the stood-up person would be an oldcomer who, in the rap leader’s judgment, had been acting suspiciously. In many cases this oldcomer would be sentenced to a “refresher” or even started over, right then and there.
Or a brand new newcomer might arrive. Or someone who had “split” — run away from the Seed (either escaped while living away from home or defected while living at home, the latter offense being by far the more serious)–might be brought in, often struggling and kicking and screaming. An intense “come-down” session would follow.
On my second or third day a young man named Jerry was made to stand in front of the group. Apparently he had turned 18 and was legally able to choose to leave the Seed. (It seems strange in retrospect because I recall that many 18 and 19 year olds, who were not from the courts, were nevertheless being held against their will.) And Jerry had made the choice to leave. A staff member introduced him, briefly explained the situation and said dryly, “I think we should try to talk him out of it.”
One by one, members of the group told Jerry what they thought of him and what would happen to him if he tried to make it “back on the streets.” The males said things like, “If I had met up with a guy like you on the streets, I would have used you for what I could get from you, walked all over you, and then beat the crap out of you.” Many of the females emphasized that he was pathetic and ridiculous and unmanly, and at one point the rap leader asked, “How many of you chicks would have had anything to do with a guy like this when you were on the streets?” And of course no one raised her hand. This was a common routine in the Seed: collectively asking all the members of the opposite sex if they would have had any respect for the person currently being “come down on.” Everyone knew not to raise their hands.
When the group was finished with Jerry, he was crying and pleading to be allowed back in the group. The rap leader contemptuously gave Jerry precise words to say, instructing him to beg the group to allow him back, and to apologize for his misbehavior. Jerry dutifully repeated the prescribed words though his tears.
Everyone knew the kinds of things they were supposed to say in all of the raps, the gist being the denigration of their former selves and celebration of “getting straight” through the Seed. If one wished to make progress in the program, it was what one had to do, and make it convincing lest one be accused of “conning” or giving “pat answers.”
An ironic aspect of “raps” was that the rap leaders repeatedly warned the group: “I don’t want to hear any pat answer!” which placed many Seedlings in a double-bind. They were expected to always say the same types of things but in a different way, and this was taxing on the imaginations of some. It was especially difficult to avoid pat answers in the nightly “rules raps,” which I will explain shortly.
Back to The Seed day:
After the morning rap, a few songs and then lunch. A line was formed at the back of the room and each person picked up his or her sandwich and a cup of kool-aid and returned to his or her seat. (Sandwiches were always either peanut butter and jelly or baloney and cheese.)
Most of the songs, as I mentioned before, were innocent ditties such as “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad” but a few had their words altered a bit to fit the spirit of the Seed, e.g. “Straight Christmas,” “If You’re Straight and You Know It Clap Your Hands.” And then there was the “Seed Song,” sung to the tune of “Greensleeves”:
- The Seed indeed is all you need
- To stay off the junk and the pills and the weed.
- You come each day from ten to ten.
- And if you screw up then you start again.
- Faith, love and honesty will prevail
- And if you can’t dig it you’ll go to jail.
- Old friends and phone calls you can’t make.
- And if you do, your leg I’ll break.
I have forgotten the second verse.
Lunch was about one half hour. Sometimes during lunch an oldcomer would “introduce himself” before the group. He would sit on the rap leader’s stool, say his name and the “drugs he did,” and proceed to relate his personal story of how miserable and phony he had been in his old life, and how happy and fulfilled he had become in the Seed.
Somewhat arbitrarily, the Seed defined a hierarchy of drugs: marijuana, hashish, barbiturates, mescaline, LSD, amphetamines, cocaine, and heroin, in that order. P resumably this was the natural progression in which everyone tried the different drugs. So if someone said, “I’ve done pot to speed,” this included LSD but excluded cocaine.
After lunch came the afternoon rap, lasting until 3:00. Then everyone was filed out into the parking lot for a half hour of exercises. The males and females remain separated at all times.
Then “guys and chicks” gathered at opposite corners of the parking lot for “boys’ raps” and “girls’ raps.” I cannot say for certain what went on in the girls’ raps but I can guess. In the boys’ raps we talked about “chicks,” how they used and manipulated us, and how they always had us “by the balls” even though we did not know it. (I could not participate too well in these raps since I had never really had a girlfriend, but I found things to say all the same.) One frequently delivered pronouncement was, “Chicks are so slick, man!” , usually following a story of how someone had been manipulated by his girlfriend. There was also contrite acknowledgement of what we had really wanted “chicks” for after all; it always came down to sex and ego gratification, not necessarily in that order.
The boys’ and girls’ raps lasted until 5:00 at which time everyone was filed back inside. Next came the rules rap, which lasted about an hour every evening. Each of the Seed’s rules was discussed and a few people would be called on to “participate” for each rule; that is, they had to say something about why the rule was there. The first rule cited each night was honesty. “Honesty is our first and most important rule.” This sentence, verbatim, was stated every single night. The other rules followed in no particular order:
- No boy-girl relationships while on your program, the reason being that you had to get straight first before you could take on any kind of relationship with the opposite sex that was not “bullshit.” In fact, a lot of jargon was thrown around in the Seed, particularly in the boys’ raps, about waiting for “that one good relationship.”
- No old druggie friends or old druggie hangouts, for obvious reasons. In fact even talking to an old druggie friend was a capital offense and if someone was caught doing so, say, in school by another Seedling, one could be started over, or at least severely “come down on” in the group and intimidated into not doing it again. In fact, it was every Seedling’s responsibility to watch over each other when they got back to school.
- No hitchhiking or picking up hitchhikers People who hitchhiked or picked up hitchhikers were invariably druggies.
- No stopping at the store on the way home if you have newcomers in the car Stores, such as 7-11, were “druggie hang-outs” and could conceivably “push buttons in the newcomer’s head.” It was also dangerous because it could offer a newcomer a chance to escape when no one was looking.
- No newcomers talking to newcomers Newcomers were full of shit and had nothing to say anyway. They could only hold each other back by talking to one another.
- No automatically moving ahead in the program Each individual worked at his own rate. The Seed, with infinite understanding, could best say when the time was right for an individual to progress to the next stage.
- Protect each other’s anonymity. This was an interesting one because, once you were back in school, everyone knew you had been to the Seed anyway. But the gist of what people said night after night was: don’t ever mention the name of a Seedling and tell an outsider that this person was in the Seed. You never know, someone might want to run for office some day and it could hurt his chances.
As the reader might imagine, it was not easy to avoid “pat answers” when this rap took place every single night.
Supper was served in the same way as lunch, with a few songs before, during, and after. It generally consisted of “sloppy Joe” or dubious chow mein. The drink was the same: a cup of kool-aid or powdered milk During the rules rap and supper, those who were back in school but still going to the Seed every day until 10:00 were allowed to sit apart from the group and do their homework.
At 7:00 was the evening rap, which lasted until about 9:45. Then a few songs, announcements (already explained), and the end of the Seed day.
“Open meetings” took place at the Seed on Monday and Friday evenings. Therefore, on Mondays and Fridays, the boys’ and girls’ raps were superceded by “homes raps.”
The boys and girls had separate homes raps. The purpose of the homes raps was to see how the group as a whole felt about each individual who was eligible to go home (those newcomers living away from home who had been at the Seed 14 days or more, or 30 days or more for those sent by courts). These individuals were stood up one by one. The rap leader would then call on a few people to participate as to how they felt this newcomer was doing, how much progress he had made so far. It was usually a scathing process because most newcomers were still full of shit and had not really started “working.” Evidence of this was the quality of the newcomer’s participation in the general raps, which was usually not too sophisticated or enthusiastic at first.
Sometimes there were cutting personal insults. There was always profanity. A couple of lines which were tossed about every homes rap were “Grow a set of balls!” and “Get your head out of your ass!” Another standard comment was, “I don’t think he’s really being honest yet”. But favorable opinions were voiced too. “I think he’s trying.” “He’s working some.” “He’s changing.” And sometimes benevolent but stern: “He’s working but not for the right reasons.” “I think he’s still got a way to go.” The staff member leading the rap would be the last to speak to each newcomer that stood up, sometimes with vicious, angry condemnation, sometimes with soothing, encouraging words, and sometimes something in between. As each newcomer would sit back down, the group would intone, “Love ya ______ (the newcomer’s name).”
But newcomers did not find out in the homes raps whether or not they could go home. This was revealed during the open meetings, and there were often big surprises.
The open meeting started at 7:30. It usually lasted far past 10:00, often past midnight. It was called an open meeting because parents, family, and sometimes others were allowed into the Seed. No one could just walk in off the street, however. Everyone who came had to be cleared through the Seed staff.
The parents were filed into the room and seated in rows of chairs opposite those of their children. Sometimes there were a few songs at the beginning. Art Barker himself was usually on hand to say a few opening words of comfort and assurance to the parents. It was by no means a solemn occasion. Everyone had cause to be happy. The kids were in the best place they could possibly be and sure, it might take some bumps and hard knocks, but every one of these kids was on his or her way to getting straight. There could be no doubt about that. And no matter what anyone said or did, the Seed was just gonna keep on saving kids. Art Barker used that phrase every time: “save kids.” Especially in times of adversity, such as when the Seed was attempting to obtain a license to open a second Seed in Miami and was encountering resistance in the community there. “Screw ’em all! We’re gonna save kids!!”
Then a Seedling, an oldcomer or oldtimer, would “introduce himself (or herself)” to the assembled parents and to the group. When this short presentation was over, each newcomer who had been in the Seed from four to fourteen days was made to stand, tell his name, the drugs he “had done,” and say a few short words about what he had learned so far in the Seed.
Then it was the parents’ turn to speak to their children. The microphone was passed from parent to parent and each in turn could stand and say a few words to their child, who would also stand, across the room. Parents could take as long as they liked, which was the reason for the length of the open meeting. Usually parents would say things like “Keep working. You gotta get straight,” and “We all have faith in you and we miss you.” But once in a while a vindictive parent stood up and said something like, “We got your message through the Seed that you needed some more clothes and some cigarettes. Well, we brought your clothes but we didn’t bring cigarettes. You don’t deserve any and we don’t like you smoking anyway!” The crowd, kids and parents alike, invariably applauded such words. Any public censure of a child by a parent was applauded on principle. That was, after all, why the kids were there: to learn, among other things, respect. (Cigarette smoking was permitted in the Seed at all times; there were no rules about smoking in the group. Cigarettes were supplied through one’s parents.)
But the exciting thing about the open meetings was this: it was the parents who first learned, at the door, whether or not they could take their child home with them that night. And they would be the ones to let their kid know, when they stood up with the microphone. It would happen something like this:
- “Hi John.”
- “Hi Mom.”
- “How ya doin’ honey? We miss you. You working?”
- “Yeah. I know I gotta work harder though.”
- “Hm. Well you must be doing something right because . . . YOU’RE COMING HOME TONIGHT!!”
Wild applause. John is hugged, patted, congratulated, has his hair tossled by everyone within two or three chairs of him.
There were many variations on this theme of course, but basically that was it. The drama and emotion of it were spectacular. Of course, there were those of us who stood up open meeting after open meeting, waiting expectantly for the magic words which did not come. This was no fun.
After the open meeting was over, announcements made, final words to parents said, and songs sung, many of the newcomers were permitted to walk over and talk to their parents for a few minutes. Newcomers were informed before the open meeting if they were to have this privilege. Then they would say, when they stood up during the meeting to speak to their parents, ” I’ll get to talk to you after the meeting.” Often came the reply, “All the way home.”
The Seed experience after hours
Having described the nature of what took place at the Seed every day, I will return to my own story to focus on what happened outside of the building itself. I believe my experiences were not atypical.
I spent my first night at Aron’s house, still feeling that I should shortly be back home and in school as soon as the mistake was cleared up. In the morning, Aron and I were picked up by other Seedlings who lived nearby, and in a car full of Seedlings and their newcomers we drove to the Seed. Upon arriving and getting out of the car, a train of young men was formed, each with his hand upon the shoulder of the next one. In this manner we walked to the door and gave our names to the person who was “signing us in.” Every morning that I was a newcomer, the procedure was similar.
But despite this and other precautionary measures, many newcomers did attempt to “split” at certain moments when they felt they had a chance. Usually they were caught immediately and restrained by physical force. As for those who did get away, very few had places to run to. They were usually retained later. Of course, “splitting” could occur at any stage of the program. Sometimes even an oldcomer would run away from home and the Seed. It was primarily the newcomers, however, who made the attempt. An oldcomer had more to lose; if you split and were brought back, you were made to start your program all over again from Day One.
The one thing I remember distinctly about my first full day at the Seed was that the morning rap was on “conning.” It was a horrifying and awakening experience for me because when people stood up and said things like “I thought I could con the Seed by just saying everything they wanted me to,” I realized that the Seed was after a very different, more fundamental kind of change than I had thought. I was scared.
That night I tried to explain to Aron that, although the Seed was obviously a wonderful place, I did not belong there. But Aron adhered to the Seed’s dogma, which said that if someone had smoked a joint even once, then that person belonged in the Seed. In fact, everyone could use a hitch in the Seed. Still, Aron was admirably (in retrospect) unfirm. In fact, in response to my persistence and my distress, he said he would try to get me a conference with a staff member, although he did not think I would be able to convince a staff member either.
But this was an extremely unusual thing for an oldcomer to say to his or her newcomer. All newcomers thought they didn’t belong in the Seed. I don’t think Aron ever really acted on it, I don’t think it would have looked good for him, as an oldcomer, if he had made a request to staff for such a conference for no good reason. But as it turned out I got my conference anyway, on my third day, because my sister had escaped from the Seed.
I was called out of the group to speak privately with Gloria, a 19-year-old staffer. Gloria wanted to see if I had noticed Judy’s absence and what my reaction had been if I had. She began by saying “As you probably know, your sister split this morning…” We talked for an hour or so. At one point, as I was trying to explain that I did not have a “druggie attitude,” Gloria asked me “Have you ever been inside Raiford?” (Raiford State Penetentiary) I said I had not and she said, “It’s an awful place. People use you. They use your body.” The implication was, if I did not get straight through the Seed, I was likely to end up in Raiford. The specter of prison was often held over the heads of resistant Seedlings, especially the youngest ones. (“You wouldn’t last very long at Raiford, smart-ass.” )
I wound up crying during this interview and, needless to say, I did not convince Gloria that I was straight and should be sent home. I must have, however, made some sort of impression because that night I was sent home with a different oldcomer. He was a little older than Aron, had been in the Seed longer (he was on his three months), and was a really “strong” Seedling. His name was Stan.
Stan had three people besides me living with him at the time. There were two other newcomers and there was Joe, who was on his newcomer-living-at-home stage and who acted as a sort of assistant oldcomer to Stan. (Joe’s parents lived in St. Petersburg and so he could not return home before completing his program.)
The line-up at Stan’s home was to shift during my four-week stay there. The other newcomers would get to go home before I would and Joe was to be placed in another “foster home.” At one point, for about a week, it was just Stan and me. Then, a couple of days before I was allowed to go home, he took another newcomer.
Stan lived with his father in an enormous house in Coral Gables, an hour and fifteen minutes drive from the Seed. This distance was one factor that made sleep particularly sparse for his newcomers; Stan was the other. There were two adjoining rooms upstairs; a large bedroom and a small parallelogram-shaped room. It was these two rooms that the five of us shared, with Stan sleeping in his bed and mattresses on the floor provided for the rest of us (including Joe). There was also a bathroom adjoining the bedroom, the door of which remained always open.
These two rooms each had one entrance door, other than the door they shared. Both of the entrance doors had security locks on them to which Stan alone had the keys. So at Stan’s house I was under stricter security than I’d been at Aron’s house. Each night Joe slept in the small bedroom with two of the newcomers while Stan slept in the big bedroom with the remaining newcomer, generally the one who was currently most in favor.
It is difficult to summarize my relationships with Stan and Joe and the other newcomers.
Newcomers were not allowed to talk to each other anyway, strictly speaking, so there was not a tremendous amount of conversation between us. But we were permitted to speak to each other in front of the oldcomers. At breakfast and at certain other times there would often be light discussion of things, such as popular music, which were of no consequence. At these times everyone was allowed to talk to one another and it could be quite pleasant. (Exception: one 24-hour period during which Stan sentenced me to absolute silence. He told me that I was not to utter one word to anyone, until he said I could, except in the group at the Seed.)
These were not the only opportunities we newcomers had to speak to each other, though. Often we would be driven back to Stan’s house at night in a van full of Seedlings all going home to the same area. And sometimes two of us would be sitting together in the back unnoticed, or ignored, in all the conversation and song-singing. Mostly we simply talked about things we enjoyed, like music, but this was special because we could speak as equals in a peer relationship, a luxury in our situation. But sometimes we also spoke of the Seed, or our oldcomers, or of our lives outside the Seed. These conversations were usually cut short by one newcomer for the sheer paranoia that such conversation induced, knowing as we did how thoroughly prohibited it was. Each one of us was vacillating between acting like human beings toward one another and trying to look good in the eyes of our oldcomers (trying to become real believers in the Seed) so that we would get to go home. So the newcomer who said first “Hey, you know this is bullshit and we shouldn’t be talking to each other anyway!” obtained a kind of psychological advantage and felt safer, even if no one (no oldcomer) was really listening in at the time.
So the newcomers were alternately in relationships of trust and distrust, support and competition with each other. If an oldcomer saw any signs of two newcomers forming a real bond, he made sure they were separated at all times.
The newcomer-oldcomer relationship, on the other hand, was supposed to be intimate. It was the oldcomer’s responsibility to get his or her newcomer straight, and to do that the oldcomer had to get to know his newcomer and highlight his newcomer’s weaknesses and inconsistencies so that the newcomer would be willing to accept his oldcomer’s judgment and become a new person through the Seed.
Many times Stan screamed at me “You don’t argue with what I say! You just accept it!” Disputing the oldcomer’s word was high insolence and a sure sign of being full of shit, not honest, not working, etc. And one had to please one’s oldcomer if one was to entertain hopes of going home since the oldcomer could (and sometimes did, though we never knew how often) report to the Seed staff on the newcomer’s progress.
The things Stan told me, and insisted I must accept, were essentially the same things the Seed told everyone, but it was more personal and intense. I would mention that I had had two best friends, and Stan would state flatly that they were not my friends, nor had they ever been, nor had I ever been a friend to them. Stan insisted that I was completely insecure and unhappy before coming to the Seed. And he loved me too much to let me deny it.
Stan was a young man with an immense ego. Although we were not supposed to talk about our old druggie lives, at least not in any but the most derogatory terms, Stan insidiously bragged about his. He would recount to his newcomers numerous tales of all the LSD he had taken, girls he had bedded, and smashing parties he had thrown, and how through it all he had been secretly miserable. Although he had been undisputed king of his druggie world, inside he had been suffering, and late late at night when the parties were over he would throw himself on his bed and cry. Poor Stan. Lucky thing he got straight. He also made sure to point out, especially to me, that he had always been an A-student with a genius’s I.Q., lest I should be thinking: ” . . . you’re any smarter than me, if that’s in your head.”
Beginning on one’s fourth night at the Seed, one had to write a “moral inventory” each night. This meant listing all the good things you did that day (e.g. “I participated honestly in the morning rap about my friends.” ), listing all your bad points of the day (e.g. “I was getting into my head during the afternoon rap.” ), and then explaining why you had your bad points. (e.g. “I was copping out of the rap because it was blowing my image of myself.” ) The moral inventory I wrote each night had to satisfy Stan before I was allowed to go to sleep. Often he would have me do it over two or three times until it was “honest.” “You should always have at least four or five good points and bad points,” he said when I had trouble thinking of different ones to put down every night. Often he or Joe would think of a bad point that I should list, such as “false pride,” and tell me to list it.
We newcomers got an average of five to six hours of sleep a night. Stan turned sleep into a privilege that was never granted before extracting a price of some sort. That price was usually a lie, a concession, a chunk of dignity, or at the very least, a satisfactory moral inventory. Sleep was the carrot at the end of the stick, the newcomers never had enough of it. Stan knew it was his chief instrument of control, and he seemed to enjoy it. (Stan himself, being on his three months, did not have to spend 12 hours at the Seed the next day.)
Often I would be the last newcomer allowed to retire because I was arguing with Stan or Joe on some point about myself, my friends, or my sister or things like whether or not I had read books like Siddhartha for pleasure or just to impress people. This kind of thing was often a heated point of argument because I had read much and had a good vocabulary. If I would mention a book I had read, or unwittingly use a word like “spontaneous,” I was vehemently accused of “playing the heavy intellectual.” It was just a game I was playing, they said, the “heavy intellectual” game. I knew this was absurd, and it took me a long time to give in on this point, but I eventually did, since it was not one of the more important points, and my stubbornness only earned me more scorn and rage. It hurt, though, to say they were right, as it hurt to eventually agree that even my friendships had been worthless. Stan was bent on driving home that I was an absolute fool to think anything in my life before the Seed had had any value or validity whatsoever. Everything druggies did was for the purpose of appearing “cool.” And I had been a druggie. It was as simple as that. No matter how many times I had actually smoked pot, the point was that I was “into acceptance” and a druggie. Stan was utterly furious and sometimes astonished at my unwillingness to be honest. He told me often that I was the “biggest asshole” of all the newcomers he’d ever had
“What are you thinking?” he would demand, quite often, as if opening my head like a jar full of jelly beans were his natural right. Most of the time I would tell him truthfully. I wouldn’t dare not answer and I knew he could tell if I lied, because it would take me a moment to make something up or twist what I was thinking into something more acceptable to him. So I’d usually tell him precisely what I was thinking, and then he would pronounce it “bullshit” and tell me what I should think instead.
In one way, however, I must credit Stan. When his newcomers got home from the Seed each night, he fed us all wonderfully, things like little pizzas and most anything we wanted. There were a few nights, though, when he was especially angry with me and I was not allowed to eat anything. Still, I cannot say I was deprived of food. It was sleep that was drastically reduced.
There were many times when I was simply unable to last the day at the Seed without dozing off (a common predicament) and sometimes I could get away with it for fifteen minutes or so during the rules rap before being shaken awake. I also learned how to sleep with my eyes open. I believe many (perhaps most) newcomers did.
There was one night when Stan had a special guest sleep over. His name was Lloyd and he had been Joe’s oldcomer. Lloyd was 18 and a very “strong” Seedling. He was venerated by both Stan and Joe, and of course he had words of wisdom to bestow on each of the newcomers. He told each of us that a haircut would help our attitudes greatly. (Stan eventually gave me a haircut. Almost all male newcomers submitted to haircuts before being allowed to go home.) And there was one point in the evening when he and Stan and Joe were all working on me at once, sitting on the floor in the small bedroom, and Lloyd leaned back for a moment and commented softly, “If you had not come to the Seed you would not have ended up in prison. You would not have wound up dead or a junkie. You would have gone insane and wound up in a mental institution.” And he looked me solemnly in the eye.
Joe nodded wisely. “Yes. I see that in him too.”
According to the Seed, there were only three roads a person could hope to travel after his first puff on a joint: death, prison, or insanity, unless he was saved by the Seed. Newcomers were told repeatedly, “You were just one step away from sticking a needle in your arm!”
Another heated point of debate between Stan and Joe and myself was their insistence that, had I met either one of them before any of us were in the Seed, I would have looked up to them for being better, “cooler” people than me, and they could have “used” me for whatever they had wanted. I maintained that I would have had nothing to do with people like them.
But for some reason, the only point on which I did not eventually give way to Stan was that I was happy before I came to the Seed. This was enough to enrage him. He would demand, “What about those nights when you lied awake in bed, wishing things were different somehow because you knew you just didn’t feel right?” and I would reply that there had been no such nights. And he would tell me what an asshole I was, and so on. It was in fact this very argument that, on the night before I was finally allowed to go home, led him to comment, “You’ve made some progress but you’re not even in the same ballpark as being allowed to go home.”
But that progress I had made had already cost me dearly. I felt like I had betrayed my friends and my sister and that I was no longer the same person. Even if I were to be completely pulled off the program at that point, I could not go back to being the person I had been. I could no longer think clearly or reflect on things in the privacy of my own mind, the way I had used to. My mind was too cluttered and confused and reflexively frightened of being invaded. Stan had always been asking, “What are you thinking?” when I had least expected it. This “What are you thinking?” ploy of Stan’s had been very effective in breaking down my resistance and cutting me off from my internal resources.
Of course, like all Seedlings, Stan only did what he did because he “loved” me. In fact, although it is possible that Stan may have been more intense than most, I believe what oldcomers did and said to their newcomers was all basically the same. (I never took a newcomer myself.) I heard many stories, some better, some a lot worse than the kinds of things I went through at Stan’s house.
I think that Stan was genuine true believer in the Seed. Once, after a night of arguing with me, he sighed and said softly, “You know, even though you’re so full of shit right now, I know you’re gonna make it. You’ll be another Seed success story.” And once I heard him remark reverently to Joe, “The Seed will change the world. The Seed’ll be the world some day.”
For that was the mythology of the Seed into which we were all indoctrinated. The Seed would keep growing until there were Seeds in every city on the globe, and the Seed would transform the world. The Seed possessed ultimate, perfect wisdom, and the Seed was not merely the one drug program that worked (all other “rehabs” were “bullshit” ); it was also the primary source of enlightenment to the entire world. In fact, any other belief system or activities that one might investigate to broaden one’s mind, such as meditation or yoga, were categorically deemed “bullshit.” There was no higher consciousness than that of the Seedling.
Art Barker talked often about “Seed City,” which was certain to manifest in the not-too-distant future. And once, in an “oldtimer’s rap” (for Seedlings who had completed their programs), the rap leader was disgruntled at a few of the oldtimers and remarked angrily, “This is supposed to be the top echelon of people in the world!” Oldtimers were, after all, consummated Seedlings.
On my 32nd day, a Monday, I was allowed to go home. I walked out the gate that night with one arm around each parent. When we got home I told them how wrong I had been to them, how happy I was they had brought me to the Seed and, many times, how much I loved them. There were smiles all around and I was fed all my favorite foods to my heart’s content. (My parents had been stockpiling them for my return.) And I could walk around, take my dog out, play my records, use the toilet…all by myself. The freedom I experienced was heavenly and I cannot say I was unhappy on this night. But underneath all the jubilance there was, deep down, a sick feeling. I had said to my parents all the things I knew I was supposed to say, and which would make them happy. But as much as I tried to believe them, I knew in my heart that I did not feel these things. And the brand new son that my folks were so pleased with was not who I really was.
A day or two after coming home I wrote a letter to my sister. She was now living in Miami in a drug rehabilitation/psychotherapy center called Genesis House. In this letter I told her all about the new person I was. I wrote eloquently about how wrong we had been to our parents and how fortunate I was to have stayed in the Seed. I disparaged my previous relationship with her. Months later I was to learn how deeply and harshly this letter had affected her. But at the time I wrote it, I only felt that it must at some point be intercepted and read by the Seed, and that would be good for me since it would amount to proof of my loyalty.
I don’t think it was really ever intercepted but at the time I had a very fuzzy concept of the Seed’s relationship to the U.S. mail. I felt they could somehow get a hold of anything. This was because of a few incidents which had taken place in the group while I was living away from home, when a rap leader had mentioned, or even read aloud to the group, intercepted letters.
One story sticks vividly in my mind (though not all of it took place when I was a newcomer):
Two Seedlings, Donna, an oldcomer, and Leo, a newcomer living at home, had run away together. When they were caught and brought back to the Seed they were made to stand in front of the group for a verbal lashing. He was a twerp, a pussy. And she, where could she hope to be in a few years? Standing on a street corner waiting for the next trick to come along! (When girls were stood up, they were almost invariably told that they were destined to become prostitutes if they didn’t shape up.)
After the group finished with these two unspeakable ingrates, they were made to take their seats in the front row and start their programs over again. A few weeks later Leo escaped again and was heard from no more. But Donna stayed on her program and was well into her three months when the following event occurred:
One of the female staffers, Gloria, came out to lead the evening rap. Instead of announcing a familiar topic she said, “I’d like to talk about some of those mushy things we used to do and say with our old druggie boyfriends and girlfriends, to make ourselves think we were really in love.”
No one knew exactly what to say at first since this was so unusual. It was not a familiar rap topic. But people offered statements such as, “Well, my old boyfriend and I used to exchange little love notes. It made us feel like we were Romeo and Juliet or something.”
After ten minutes or so of this Gloria said, “Donna Stratton, stand up.”
From her seat in the group, Donna stood.
The Gloria produced a sheaf of letters that Donna had written over the months to Leo (who was now either in jail or reform school). The essence of what Donna wrote was that they were still in love, she was saving money, and when Donna got out of the Seed they could be together again. The group laughed uproariously at each sentimental word or phrase, and assorted snickers punctuated the rest. Then, after a brief come-down session, Donna was led up to the front row and started over yet again.
The funny thing about staff members like Gloria was that they could be quite kind and sympathetic to those whom they liked, and yet they were positively vicious to those whom they disliked. Most of the staffers fell into this category, which is why it was advantageous to be liked by them. Of course some were just generally vicious and some generally kind. Some, if you caught their eye during a rap, would give you a terrible hard look as if to say, “What are you looking at me for? Pay attention!” Some would ignore you. And there were one or two who would smile at you.
A week after arriving home I was allowed to go back to school, and two days after that I was on my three months.
There were about 35 Seedlings in my high school. They had all seen my face in the group and I was recognized immediately. I was instantly a member of their society. There were other Seedlings in two of my classes and they both came right up and introduced themselves to me, my very first day back in school. One of them later showed me where the “Seed lunch table” was in the cafeteria, so I could sit with the other Seedlings. There was even a spot where the Seedlings gathered at the end of the school day, to chat or arrange rides to the Seed.
Everyone was extremely friendly and I felt welcomed. At the end of the day, one or two of them would ask me if I’d had any “hassles.” This was one way they had of showing concern and interest to the newcomer back in school Hassles were one of two things: come-ons from your old druggie friends who were trying to make you talk to them, or simply people harassing you because you were a Seedling. It was easy to see that you were a Seedling if you had been absent from class for an extended period of time, had a haircut, hung out with the other Seedlings, and refused to talk to anyone else. Many students enjoyed hassling Seedlings. The proper response was to say “I love you” and ignore them.
As far as my old druggie friends were concerned, I had only one in school and he, like me, had done very little to earn the title “druggie,” at least as far as drugs were concerned.
George was in my first period class and I sat immediately behind him. My first day back in school, when he looked up and saw me, I said nothing but simply took my seat. He turned around, looked at me and asked, “Same as you were?”
I smiled an arrogant Seed smile. “A little different,” I said.
“I liked the way you were.”
“Turn around. I can’t talk to you.”
I was already afraid that, if another Seedling was in the class, I had already said too much by answering his first question.
Of course I learned that day just which of my classes did have other Seedlings, and it did not take more than a day or two before I decided that George was really straight after all and it would be okay for me to talk to him.
But George “looked like a druggie” and when another Seedling spotted me talking to him one day he pointed this out and asked if George was an old friend. Yes, I replied. But he was straight.
No he was not straight. He was “dry” perhaps but just by looking at him you could tell he was a druggie.
There was a category known as “dry druggies,” people who had gotten high before but were currently not using any drugs. Part of the Seed catechism was that there was absolutely no way to “get straight on your own.” These attempts were always doomed to failure. Even such drastic measures as the “geographical cure,” moving away from the area where your druggie friends lived, could not succeed because you were still “into acceptance.”
In school, someone had to look very straight for it to be all right to talk to them. George, with hair pronouncedly over his ears, did not meet this standard.
So within a week of being back in school, I was in trouble. At the lunch table I was the sole object of discussion that day. I must say, however, it was not a come-down session. There was no name calling or threats (although the threats were implicit). Everyone seemed genuinely concerned with showing me, by argument, that talking to George was “dangerous.” (Druggies in general were “dangerous” to talk to because they could lead you back into your old ways. Old friends and ex-Seedlings, those who had been “pulled off” the program by their parents and were no longer straight, were the most dangerous because they knew how to “push buttons in your head.”) Hadn’t George once been a part of the life I led before the Seed? He was a dry druggie at best and how did I know he wasn’t using drugs now? He could be lying to me.
Fortunately for me, and to the credit of the Seedlings at my high school, I don’t think this incident was ever reported back to the Seed. I certainly would have heard about it if it had been. Other Seedlings had been put on refreshers or even started over for less serious offenses. “Talking to old druggie friends” was a cardinal sin.
I told George the next day that I could not talk to him. When I reported this to a fellow Seedling he good naturedly corrected me: “You should say you don’t want to talk to him. Not you can’t.” So that is what I said the next time George tried to talk to me.
Seedlings were supposed to keep an eye on each other in school (although some followed this directive much more enthusiastically than others). If someone was even missing from the Seedlings’ lunch table it was cause for deep suspicion. School officials and teachers were in no way part of this arrangement, although now and then the school did cooperate with the Seed in small ways (such as the way my sister and I were called to the dean’s office to go to the Seed). Many teachers, however, expressed open disapproval of the Seed.
Seedlings were forbidden to talk to reporters about the Seed and once, when a group of teachers in a couple of schools suggested open after-school discussion sessions about the Seed with Seedlings, ex-Seedlings, and former friends of Seedlings, this was also strictly forbidden. These were offenses punishable by as much as starting over, or so it seemed from the dire warnings we all received at the Seed. The rationale was that all these people merely had a “con” they wanted to perpetrate.
I eventually worked out an arrangement with George whereby I talked to him only one period a day, in gym class. The reason I gave George for this was that although I was still committed to the Seed, I did not think it would harm me to talk to him just one period per day.
The real reason was that I felt safe because gym class was held outside and there was no chance of another Seedling walking by, as in a classroom. Of course I did not admit to myself that this was the reason. I dared not admit to myself that I felt anything but fierce loyalty to the Seed.
Of course, my relationship with George was never quite the same.
I spent a total of exactly three months, two weeks and four days on my “three months.” I graduated from the Seed nine days after my fifteenth birthday. For a few weeks it was still mandatory for me to come to the “oldtimers’ raps” on Tuesday and Saturday nights. But when I started missing them here and there, and no one said anything, I gradually got the idea that I could come or not come as I pleased. Over the months I attended them less and less, as did most Seedlings.
A year or so after completing my program I was excommunicated from the Seed community at school for talking to druggies, growing my hair long, and showing various other signs of attitude disintegration. I was not the first. About half the Seedlings I had been on my program with had already gone back to drugs and their old friends. Within a year I was to see all but one or two of the other half do the same.
I would like to insert a point here about the apparent loyalty all Seedlings have to the Seed:
When I was still a newcomer living at Stan’s, the Seed was trying to obtain a license to open up in Dade County (Miami). During this period of time, a song was introduced and sung frequently in the group. It was called “When the Seed Comes Into Dade” and it was sung to the tune of “When the Saints Go Marching In.” During renditions of this song, we would all wave our hands above our heads in a hallelujah-type gesture, and sing more and more exuberantly with each repetition of the verse. (There was only one.)
And there was one time when, in the group, the rap leader asked who would like to go down to the courthouse (or wherever it was the whole matter was to be decided) to support the Seed, and everyone eagerly raised their hands. They lucky ones who were permitted to go got to spend the day sitting around the courthouse singing songs.
And finally, when in the middle of an open meeting one night, Art Barker strode into the room and announced that the Seed had won its license, I was among the three-minute standing ovation that ensued. And despite my adversarial relationship with Stan, despite the fact that I was there unwillingly, despite my general misery, I somehow felt part of the victory.
The aftermath and the internal process
Shortly after my experience in the Seed, I did use drugs again, many more drugs, in fact, than I had used prior to the Seed. My relationship with my parents deteriorated severely; it became far more fraught with hostility than it had ever been before the Seed. My school grades went down and I failed classes for the first time in my life.
I knew and spoke with many ex-Seedlings during the first couple of years after I graduated the program. Some, like me, were deeply bitter about the experience. But most were indifferent; they seemed to have gotten over it very quickly, and they wondered aloud why I couldn’t do the same. One or two even contended that it had been good for them to have received a little shaking up at the right time. They felt that, although they were basically back to the lives they had led before the Seed, they were now somewhat more in control.
I have no explanation for these differing perspectives, and I do not know what these individuals might say today. I have long lost contact with all of them. There is a website for Seed survivors, where the great majority of participants feel that the Seed did them terrible, traumatic harm. But of the thousands of children who were forced into the Seed and who went through the program, only a hundred or so have posted to this website.
It took me well over a decade to understand what had happened to me, what the Seed had done to my psyche, and what I’d done to myself while I was in the Seed. I strongly suspect that my internal process was very similar to that of many other Seedlings, though I cannot speak for others.
In a nutshell, the Seed forced me to “mean things that were not true.” Under the combined pressures of sleep deprivation, lack of privacy, and constant haranguing both at the Seed and in Stan’s charge, I eventually, with my words, betrayed everything that was sacred to me at that time in my life. I felt that if my friends on the outside still had any good feelings for me, then I no longer deserved them.
The obvious question, though, is why did I have to mean it? Why couldn’t I simply say what I was being forced to say, but hold the words more lightly? Why couldn’t I, or anyone else for that matter, simply “con” the Seed?
I think many kids actually did con the Seed. But I couldn’t, and I imagine most other kids couldn’t either. The strategy I believe most Seedlings adopted (including me) was to try and persuade themselves that the Seed had to be right. Maintaining a consistent lie, a conscious subterfuge, under such stressful conditions was a tall order for an unsophisticated young teenager. Also, I saw other Seedlings getting “busted” for conning right and left in the group. (I have no idea how many of those accused of conning were actually deliberately conning, any more or less than the rest of us.)
I remember a moment of horror, on the evening of my seventh or eighth day, when I realized that I was unable to “think” any longer. I had lost the ability to retreat into the sanctuary of my own mind and think things through, because I had grown so accustomed to being intruded upon without a moment’s notice. It was as if I’d had a sealed off room in my head that had previously been accessible only to myself, and now even I could not enter. (I think I may known even then, in my heart of hearts, that I would regain access to this room at some point in my life, but it would be a long time, much longer than I could accept at age 14.)
During my time with Stan, I put a great deal of energy into resisting him. I set up a psychic force field, as it were, between us. To keep from being devoured, I had to maintain a certain tension, a precarious balance between overt resistance and total surrender. So I emerged at last from his dominion with a certain meager sense of myself intact. But still, I felt horribly guilty and empty, as if I had been pillaged and broken.
At some point shortly after being allowed to go home, I was sitting in the large warehouse room, in the group, at the Seed, pondering how I still believed myself to be “different” from everyone else there, and wondering what good it did me to feel this way. I could see how it was causing me pain. I could not see how it would ever serve me. My fate, as far ahead as I could see, was locked. There was nothing for me but to be a Seedling. I might as well be one then, and wholeheartedly embrace whatever attendant rewards there were. There were some: I could feel a part of something larger than myself. I could be part of an (albeit self-proclaimed) elite. I could have friends, a community, an identity. Why hold out for some other ambiguous set of rewards that I had already sold myself out of anyway?
And here is where I made a strange decision. I decided to make myself a true Seedling. All the energy I had put into resisting Stan, I now directed at my own resistance. I now became my own primary oppressor, working to deny and even to change my genuine feelings. After all, I already felt that I had betrayed myself (and all of my friends), I was already lost; one step further would not make a difference. I could not see the light at the end of the tunnel.
In one sense this “strategy” worked brilliantly. I moved through the rest of the program very quickly. Perhaps it was only an extension, really, of what I’d been doing in the Seed all along up until then, nothing fundamentally different in kind. Whenever the tension between what I really thought and felt and what I was “supposed to” think and feel became too apparent and unbearable to me, I had to deny the conflict and push it out of mind. I was unable to “ride out” the discomfort of being divided. My choices were either to consciously live a lie, or start working internally against my own emotions. I didn’t see myself as capable of the former.
The ultimate consequence of this process for me was a profound loss of self-respect, a sickening self-disgust that lingered for years, and piercing emotional pain.
As a result of my experience in the Seed, everything seemed a mockery of itself. I fundamentally doubted the authenticity of any conviction, any emotion, my own or anyone else’s. The Seed, in my psyche, had crapped all over everything. Nothing stood apart, unsullied by the shadow of the Seed’s judgment. I had acquiesced in adopting that judgment as my own for a time, and I could not easily disown it. It had sunk in deeper than my rational mind.
The process of putting things back into their proper perspective vis-à-vis the Seed, that is, learning to see and feel the Seed as just one tiny, narrow-minded, self-aggrandizing pocket of fear in the world, as opposed to a fundamental frame of reference, corresponded to the process of learning to forgive myself for what I had done, for the part I had played in my own undoing.
First, I had to realize that, rightly or not, I did hold myself accountable; I did blame myself. From there, I needed to look at the fourteen-year-old kid I had been in 1972, and understand the pressures he was under, and have compassion for the choices he made, and accept that I hadn’t been perfect, or maybe just not as heroic and invulnerable as I would have liked to have been. These insights crystallized in my mind just about fourteen years after the Seed, when I was 28. I think of this as the time when my emotional healing really began to take hold.
Concluding thoughts and observations
I was younger than most Seedlings, and had had less experience with drugs than most Seedlings. Still, the vast majority of Seedlings, over 95%–were not addicts. They were teens experimenting with drugs, who had been forced into the Seed against their will.
The Seed was a highly publicized and controversial program. Everyone talked about it. There were news reports and articles about it. The Seed thrust itself into the public eye; Art Barker was an incorrigible grandstander, and there were even Seed license plates proclaiming, “The Seed Loves You.” But too much attention proved to be unhealthy for the Seed. In 1974, the United States Senate published a study that accused The Seed of using methods similar to North Korean communist brainwashing techniques. The Senate stated that the Seed’s teenage clients were “subjected to experimental and potentially harmful treatments.” This type of bad press, in conjunction with a few lawsuits, forced the Seed out of Dade County and caused the Seed to scale back its operations.
Successor programs to the Seed, including the notorious Straight, Inc. which was started by zealous Seed parents, have been, by all accounts, much more savvy and meaner than the Seed. These programs have shunned and avoided publicity; they have flown under the public radar. They are also far more tightly controlled, and their teenaged “clients” are subjected to levels of physical and emotional stress that make the Seed seem gentle by comparison.
The fact that certain elements in the Seed were uncontrolled, such as what took place between oldcomers and newcomers in the oldcomers’ homes, represented a risk for unmonitored abuse, but also an opportunity for breaths of fresh air. For example, when my fellow Seedlings at school did not turn me in for talking to George, this was an occasion on which the redemptive and unpredictable human element quietly expressed itself. Even at Stan’s house, there was often an unstructured, genuine conviviality around mealtimes. These uncontrolled moments and unsupervised dynamics were important threads of sanity. The Seed, in some ways, was loosely structured, and I believe this was a saving grace for some of us.
By contrast, in the dozens, possibly hundreds of “residential teen treatment centers” in operation today, children are imprisoned at the facility itself 24 hours a day, for months at a time. In these programs, ongoing psychological and verbal abuse is accompanied by the threat and administration of severe physical abuse. There are many documented accounts of these horrors on the Internet and elsewhere.
Based on what I have read in the testimony of program survivors, it remains the case that the vast majority of the THOUSANDS of teens who are currently incarcerated in these cruel and abusive programs are not drug addicts. These teens did not pose an imminent danger to themselves or others before being committed and locked up. They were merely doing what millions of other teens do; namely, experimenting with drugs and sex.
I call on parents to weigh the possible consequences of committing their child to a “therapeutic facility” whose day-to-day operations are mysterious. If you are worried that your child is in danger, there are many licensed, reputable alternatives to coercive behavior modification.
I am very dubious about the value of coercive persuasion. There are program graduates who will testify that such treatment “saved their lives.” I am not in a position to dispute anyone else’s personal testimony. However, it is hard to imagine that such treatment can have long-term benefits for any but the most desperately troubled and self-destructive drug users and addicts. Such treatment certainly does NOT improve long-term relations between children and parents. On the contrary, an ordeal of this kind can sever the parent-child bond permanently.
I call on parents to consider that what they are purchasing, when they turn their children over to such institutions, is a “product,” not a “process.” What I mean is that parents are not buying a course of therapeutic treatment for their children; they are buying the “end product” that the program promises: a well-behaved, well-groomed, drug-free, grateful, and obedient child.
The Seed was a harmful and traumatic episode in my life, and it took me years to heal from it. Given that I’ve had a lot of luck and a lot of help, and also given that the Seed was a mild program compared to most of those in existence today, I am extremely concerned for the well-being of teenagers in today’s behavior modification/coercive thought reform “treatment centers.” Were the Seed still in existence, I would advocate that it be closed. I feel that much more strongly about the unregulated “teen help” industry that now exists in frightening proportions.
I offer this testimony in hopes that it may contribute to larger organized efforts to curtail the reprehensible activities of those who profit from inflicting systematic abuse and misery on vulnerable children.