Long-time readers of Brooklyn Based may remember a wonderful, offbeat essay series we ran about five years ago called “The Lobster Shift,” which explored late night spaces in New York City. The writer behind that project, Kenneth Rosen, worked at the New York Times, and has spent the past few years reporting from Iraq and Syria as a foreign correspondent.
Earlier this year Ken published Troubled, The Failed Promise of America’s Behavioral Treatment Programs a book that has been nearly a decade in the making, about the so-called tough love industry. Wilderness programs and residential facilities around the country market themselves to parents seeking help with their “troubled teens.” While they cloak themselves in therapeutic language, the behavioral treatment programs that Ken writes about are not grounded in peer-reviewed, evidence-based practices. Physical, emotional, and sexual abuse all occur, with few avenues for recourse. If you’re thinking that surely any program tasked with caring for vulnerable, if emotionally unlovely children must be highly regulated by the state or federal government, you would be incorrect.
These treatment programs target desperate families who pay considerable sums in the hopes of helping their children, at bare minimum, stay out of the criminal justice system, though their experiences ultimately may not be all that different. The experience usually starts with program employees taking teenagers by surprise, often in the middle of the night, without their consent. Ken himself lived through this experience as a teenager, and he treats the subjects of his book with vivid clarity and heartbreaking kindness.
Annaliese Griffin spoke with Ken Rosen over Zoom, her from Vermont, him from Northern Italy, about the experience of writing Troubled as a survivor of the systems he investigates, alternatives, and what it’s like for him to be the parent of two small children.
These programs are seen, or even explicitly touted as alternatives to more formally carceral consequences. Is there any whisper of actual personal growth that would make them better than the criminal justice system, other than simply avoiding the stigma of a record? Or are they just as punishment focused?
It’s punitive on its face, just like incarceration. I spent time incarcerated later, and I understood that it wasn’t about reform. It never was. It was mostly about paying a due, about penance.
People have asked me, Do you believe that these programs should exist? That’s really not the question—I’m just a journalist who has some evidence to counter the narrative of these programs being beneficial.
I think that families really need to work on themselves. I get all these emails from parents that sound like they believe the problem is just the kids. Like, My child was doing this, she wouldn’t come home, she was out all night, and now she’s away, and I don’t know what to do.
Never do I hear, I wish I would have listened more. I wish I had other options. This doesn’t seem to fit with what my child needs. There’s nothing like that introspection on the parents’ part. They’re looking to me to validate their decision to send their kid away. And that’s not my job. That’s not our job as journalists. I’m just presenting you information and then you can do with it what you want.
I’m just stunned that nobody recognizes that the family unit is the thing that needs changing—that the divorce is so messy, that the the conditions at home aren’t comfortable, that the parents haven’t created a space in which the kids can open up and talk about why they’re drifting off, or how they were beat up at school, or a crush that just ruined them and they don’t know how to deal with that feeling, and they don’t have anyone to turn to. These things just snowball. If we were to focus on community-based treatment, focus on repairing the family unit, we could perhaps prevent all of this.
When you’re a journalist or writer by trade, people are constantly saying, Oh you should write a book. Your experience though, of living through various troubled teen programs truly does demand in some ways a book—what was the process like, coming to write this?
In college, after I took a book proposal writing course, I said, I’m going to do a book about my childhood at a military academy. And it was total crap.
And then I went to small newspapers and started working in Savannah and Alaska, before joining The New York Times. I said, Alright, I’m going to try to attack this book again. But I think I want it to be about my time in the wilderness, my time at these programs, starting with military school, and then just chronicling these different types of programs. And I would spend every morning writing this crap manuscript that was 80,000, 90,000 words. I tried to sell it, I wrote an essay for Narratively, and a lot of agents reached out to me.
We were shopping it around, and it was getting all this bad feedback. Like, It’s not a time for a memoir of this nature. We don’t want this—it’s sort of inward facing, there’s not enough questions being answered. Twenty-one editors passed on it and I said, fuck, I need to publish this, I can’t just give up.
I actually take rejection to propel me into doing more stuff. Every time I get an article rejected, I pitch it out to six other outlets right away, cuz I just wanna stick it to them. Some weird, weird way of operating, I know.
So I went back and I was like, Why don’t I just report it out and speak with all the kids who went to these programs and really hone it into focus on the therapeutic aspect? Not the military school, but the programs that I attended. Almost immediately after I wrote and submitted the book proposal to my agent, we had a book deal. I mean, it was really overnight. But of course, that comes on the back of years of figuring it out. Then I started writing and reporting it and I finished it two years ago. And now it’s coming out, here we are. Finally.
What changed for you, in reporting this out rather than writing it as a memoir? Did it shift the way you think about this industry? Your experience in it?
First, I realized how lucky I was. So many young people I interviewed did not turn out well. So many people were struggling financially, with relationships, with their living situation, with trauma. And I was going around visiting these people in their homes and at their places of work and going to lunch and dinner with them and meeting their kids. And I was just shocked to think about my nice, two-bedroom apartment in Williamsburg with my beautiful girlfriend at the time, who I was planning on getting engaged to, and having gone to Columbia University, having been working at the Times.
When I started listening to their stories, and going through the transcripts, as a journalist, things started coming up again. A lot of what they were experiencing, I still faced in my day-to-day life—some relationship issues, some combative nature that I had at work, was definitely exemplary of the stress and trauma from these programs that other people weren’t able to mitigate into their adulthood. I started making these connections only because I was hearing other stories. I was hearing someone talking about their life, and I was like, That sounds very eerily familiar to the way I operate and the way I interact with the world. So it was cathartic for me.
It really ended up changing my perspective, because I had written previously about the programs, and I wasn’t that critical. I wasn’t that critical, because I didn’t feel like anything happened. But that was sort of the beauty of the programs—you’re not meant to feel like something happened, right? You’re supposed to feel like you went through something normal, which inherently wasn’t normal.
So you reported this out, you spent a lot of time with people you knew when you were in some of these programs, and with people you met through social media groups for survivors. What kind responsibility do you feel to the folks you talked to, who shared their often quite grim stories with you?
One of the reasons I chose the characters I did was because I felt like I could do justice to their stories. The most important thing about narrative nonfiction is emotional honesty. I think that to really tell a story, you need to be aware of the emotions that you’re trying to portray, not just the facts, but also the emotions, because that really tells the story. You know, dialogue is never about what’s being said, it’s about what’s not being said, in that way.
The stories felt very much like my own. So I was doing my best to portray them, keenly aware that they weren’t mine, but they also represented a lot of my own feelings. The scariest part about publishing the book was getting the advance copies and sending it to the four people who are in the book and saying, Please tell me if I got anything wrong, I can change it now. Let’s talk through it. And they gave me good feedback. And they said, you know, you got one or two things wrong, but by and large the really important stuff you got right.
I wrote this more or less in 10 weeks. Most of it was at McDowell in New Hampshire. I re-lived a lot of emotions, reading my journals, reading the transcripts of my interviews with everyone in a secluded house on the edge of a wood, trying to make sense of my own past while telling the stories of other individuals. I struggled for those few weeks and my wife came to visit me a couple times, when I was having a particularly difficult day or a difficult night. Having her support helped me realize that I helped me keep away from that pull of thinking You haven’t changed, this is nothing but self serving. All these bad thoughts that were cropping up.
I think these stories are important. I think that the continued outpouring of stories, not only my book, but Paris Hilton’s documentary, the people who are writing to me now and wanting to learn how to tell their stories. People are taking to social media to describe their abuse in these programs. I think it’s all beneficial. So whatever difficulties I had in the few weeks I spent writing it and all the time I spent reporting it pale in comparison.
One of the things that really struck me while reading about these tough love programs, whether wilderness-based or residential, was the structure that you outline. Kids moving through them have to complete levels to gain privileges, to get out. But they aren’t therapeutic or about gaining skills or insight—they’re just these random milestones that create a false sense of accomplishment and uniformity of experience. Tell me more about how that tactic is used.
There’s a book by Robert Lipton called Thought Reform that outlines this, though it’s more about cults, brainwashing. You are given these banal tasks imbued with a sense of importance, that tie you to this group that you’re in. So it’s about the group rather than society—you’re trying to improve yourself within this ostracized group, so I’m trying to make sure that I rat out my friends in order to get to say, Level Three.
I knew that they were ridiculous, but I didn’t know what they were doing at the time. They just said that this is what you have to do to graduate, and if that is the only way to get out of the program, it normalizes it almost instantly. Especially when you’re kicked down a level and they restrict you from moving ahead and you’re like, Oh, I was so close to getting home to getting back to my life, but then they took it away.
Did going through that system of what is essentially brainwashing and control make you cynical about what we consider achievement? You’ve done your levels—you’re married, you have kids, you’re an award-winning journalist with a book, but are you also critical, or at odds with those things?
I wish I would have taken a more straight and narrow path. I don’t appreciate all the resistance that I went through. When I turned like 25 or 26 I started to realize that life was really just a game. Like on a fundamental level. If you can work the stock market, you can make money. If you get certain degrees you advance to this stage. And so I was like, Fuck, I wish I would have looked at it as a game earlier and realized I could have worked the system in order to benefit myself later. But maybe that’s me putting the programs onto life, rather than really just accepting life.
It feels so scary to think of my kids, who are little, growing up to be “troubled teens.” Do you grapple with that at all?
I try not to make a leap with my reporting in the Middle East, but I do see some carryover. All the kids I meet in the Middle East who are my age, your age, our generation are so different than who we see in power now, the people who are making all these decisions now, who are choosing to stick with long-held beliefs or systems.
I have to believe that what we’re doing, what we’re experiencing, what we’re seeing you and I and our generation, hopefully, will reverberate with our kids. I’m not the hard John Wayne type persona father that my father was. I’m much more interested in my son being empathetic than I am him being strong. I think we have to wait for that to take over. But I really have hope in that. And I really think that going to be the saving grace—these programs won’t really have a place when my son is more willing to cry in front of his dad than I ever was.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.