Memoir Excerpt – C. Kapela ©
It would take me a full ten days before I became somewhat “adjusted” to the program. Within my first week, I was sent to study hall two more times, once for accidentally speaking to another Level One when I asked through the bathroom door if there was anyone inside and another for accidentally carrying my pencil out of the meal hall. While I was still angry that one of the punishments had lasted over six hours as I wrote 10,000 words because I was seventeen words short on my first essay, I took solace in the fact that I had managed to avoid OP.
About a week into my stay, someone tried to run away. It was long after shut down and our room was dark, everyone sleeping. I remember awakening from a nightmare to the sound of loud Jamaican voices shouting from a distance. As I struggled to make out what they were saying or at least to determine a general location of the noise, it stopped suddenly. The remainder of the night was filled with desperate screaming from the boy’s side of the facility. Only the next afternoon did the story reach our family, somehow passed through whispers from one side of the facility to the other. A boy had apparently tried to run in the night. He’d made it to the beach and was trying to swim along the coast but the waves were too big and he had to go back to running. He was promptly caught and returned to the facility. For over a week I had trouble sleeping, his voice crying out in pain every night.
I was slowly learning to adjust to the daily routine. I learned how to do laundry in buckets of cold water outside. We used stiff brushes and powdered soap to clean our uniforms, letting them air dry on the line. I learned that before one was granted permission to use the restroom, you had to announce to the staff and the other students around you whether it was #1 or a #2 and then go to the front of the room to receive the appropriate number of toilet paper squares. I learned that at least once a week, someone from our family would be sent to OP. I became even more determined to never go there.
Group therapy wasn’t getting any easier but I was slowly starting to accept it as a necessary part of my day. I still didn’t feel comfortable standing in front of twenty girls, a few staff members, and a family representative to share the innermost details of my life. My parents had sent a lengthy document of my past transgressions and issues so in the end it didn’t matter if I wanted to share or not. I was still bombarded daily with negative feedback for not being open enough about what I felt but I was starting to be able to block it out. The initial shell-shock of arriving was wearing off and I was gaining my strength back day by day.
I had made my first friend.
Kari was a Level Two and I was a Level One. She slept on the top bunk across from mine and would be turning 18 shortly before I did. We all knew that she wouldn’t be staying and most of her group therapy sessions were spent receiving feedback about her decision. Her parents were completely non-supportive of her leaving the program and had only committed to providing her a bus ticket home and $25 in spending cash if she didn’t remain until graduation. She had made the choice to leave anyway and I respected her deeply for it. She gave me hope that no matter what my parents decided, I would still somehow be able to leave this place one day.
Our friendship began one evening just before shut down. She had received a lot of rough feedback in group and was really struggling with her parent’s refusal to let her have any contact with her siblings should she decide to leave without graduating. I could hear her crying from her bunk. No one was comforting her. I wanted to run over and leap up and just hold her. I knew what her fear felt like as I was feeling the same. Just the day before I had received my first set of letters in response to my begging to be pulled and was given a similar rhetoric. My parents were fully committed to my graduating the program despite the intricate details I had revealed about what Tranquility Bay was really like.
I laid in bed for a few minutes, struggling between receiving an automatic consequence for speaking to her or just letting her cry in silence. Suddenly, I remembered a game my childhood friend Winnie and I had played. We used to make hilarious sheep sounds whenever we were riding in the backseat of her father’s car. For some reason, it always made us laugh. If either one of us was ever down, we’d break out the animal sounds and it would always help the other to feel better. I didn’t know if I would get in trouble or not, but I decided to give it a shot.
“Baaaaaaaa-aaaah” I bleated loudly from my bed. I looked over at Kari quickly to see if she heard. A couple of the other girls had laughed, but I could see she was still crying. I did it again. This time, she rolled over and looked at me. Staff wasn’t paying attention, so I quickly winked at her and bleated again. Her eyes were puffy from crying and her blond hair was stuck to her cheeks, but I saw a slight smile start to form. I made the sound again, this time a little quieter. Suddenly, she started to laugh and made the sound too. In that moment, even without using real words, we both knew we had found a friend and an ally amidst all of the heartache.
From that day on, we spent as much time together as we could. During field time, we would hold hands as we walked the track, always careful to never speak. We sat next to each other whenever possible and occasionally communicated through select Level 3 students. We had more in common than we realized. We both came from conservative families who didn’t appreciate our liberal lifestyles. We had similar taste in music, activities, and future plans. She looked a bit like me, thin and pretty, and the connection that we felt to each other was one of the only things that got me through my time in the program. Though we were never allowed to speak directly to each other, we still made plans about meeting up in pre-determined locations after we were out. It was strictly forbidden to share addresses or contact information, but we knew we would find a way.
A few weeks into my stay, I received my first letter from my 13-year-old brother, Aiden. Of all the letters that I received from my family during my stay, his was the only one that acknowledged that something seemed amiss in the program. He had been sent to fat camp when he was eleven and it was an experience that had both terrified him and deeply wounded his self-esteem. We used to talk about it a lot – how much he had hated the drill-sergeant like director, how homesick he had been, and how it had taken multiple phone calls begging my parents to come and get him before he was allowed to finally come home. I would read it again and again during my stay.
Hey Chelsea, It’s me, Aiden. Long time no see. I miss you. How are things? I’m pretty sure I know what you’re feeling. I’m sure it’s different but when I went away I was scared too. Are we allowed to send you candy and stuff like that? I hope you are starting to adjust to where you live now. I read your letter – pretty scary sounding. Do they read your mail? Do they read what you get in the mail? I don’t know what I should say but I do miss you. Mom and dad got me a counselor. He’s kinda weird but I like talking to him. If you want me to get you anything and mail it to you, like some comics out of a book, I’d be glad to (if it’s allowed). Well, I’ll see you soon I hope. Love, Aiden
Around the same time that I received my brother’s letter, my parents sent notification that I was to be pulled from the vegetarian meal plan and placed on a non-restricted diet. My family representative had notified them that I wasn’t gaining enough weight on the vegetarian plan and that the plan wasn’t nutritionally balanced enough. Instead of cabbage three times a day, I now had to struggle through unidentifiable portions of meat, some with the skin and hair still on them. We had spam sandwiches once a week, fried fish on Fridays, and a cold watery version of ox-tail soup frequently for lunch. I was devastated to lose one of the last bits of freedom that I still held onto but – as was expected of me – complied to avoid being sent to OP.
As my one-month date approached, I felt my health slowly declining. I was constantly starving, the meager portions hardly enough to sustain me. At least once a week, the entire family would find itself in line for the bathroom, sick from something we had eaten. The plumbing in our room would typically back up when this occurred and we would all have to sleep with the stench of sewage surrounding us. Sometimes it would be days before it was repaired. It was hard to identify what made us sick as most of the food preparation and storage methods would never have been allowed in the US. All of the food was cooked outside and we would often pass the next day’s meat or fish sitting outside in the sun. Powdered milk was served more frequently than juice and was never kept cold. I was so hungry all the time that I actually looked forward to drinking the warm “Peanut Butter Flavor” milk that was served only on Saturdays. Staff never acknowledged our illnesses, occasionally issuing consequences to girls who spent too much time in the bathroom.
I had started seeing blood in my stool every time I went and asked to see the nurse. The staff refused, stating that it was “normal” and that all of the girls had that because we just weren’t used to the Jamaican food. I had severe abdominal cramping every day but struggled through it as I knew that nothing was going to happen unless I was literally laying on the floor in agony. One girl in my family had gotten such severe food poisoning that she had to be taken to the hospital. Despite the fact that she had been vomiting constantly and had been unable to make it to the bathroom multiple times, they still waited several days before taking her. I remember them taking her in the middle of the night, her moaning in pain. She wouldn’t return for several days. It was a lesson we all learned. Unless we were under the immediate threat of death, nothing was going to get us out of those gates.
My parents had enrolled me in a special class within the program called “Rape & Molest.” It was held downstairs in the large open seminar room as it had so many attendees. The director of the group was the assigned school psychologist. During my first meeting, I remember staring out at the tear-stained faces of at least fifty girls and realizing that nearly everyone on the girl’s side of the facility had been a victim of sexual violence. Though he would never outright state “this was your fault,” we all were expected to take responsibility for what he saw as the “non-working choices” that helped to create the situation. Feeling traumatized or victimized was something that the program looked at as a choice. Not only did we choose to dress or act in inappropriate ways that had encouraged sexual violence but we also chose to hold onto the aftermath emotions of these events. For those who had been there longer, this philosophy was preached as empowering, as something that enabled them to let go of their pain and choose to move on. Being so new, I saw it in a different light.
We were constantly asked to look at the fundamental decisions that had led to our situations. Drugs, alcohol, inappropriate clothing, inappropriate flirtation, being alone with a boy, not telling someone about a molestation – all of these were choices that we had made that were important to acknowledge before we could “choose” to move on and make “working decisions” in the future. There were a lot of girls who had been molested by their parents or step-parents and of those, most were sent to the program by the very people who had molested them. I never saw or overheard legal action encouraged. Rather, the goal was often to encourage girls to forgive their molesters and choose to have “appropriate” relationships with their caretakers in the future. Our pain and sadness was looked at as unnecessary, as though we were just acting out.
There was something so incredibly sad about hearing the stories – some from girls as young as twelve – and realizing that the treatment that they were receiving was focused more on a reteaching of fundamental right-wing values than it was on healing their wounded selves. Though guilt was another emotion that was taught to be “non-working” and “victim based,” I never left those sessions without it. By the time I left, I truly believed that I had chosen to be raped. When I returned home, I wouldn’t fight it as the investigation fizzled. It would be over ten years before I would finally realize that what happened to me was not my fault and that no one, under any circumstances, has the right to victimize another person.
I would like to include a quote from Decca Aitkenhead’s “The Last Resort” published in the June 2003 issue of The Observer. Included in this article is a rare interview with Dr. Chappuis, the psychologist who led this group. Dr. Chappuis was quoted as, “’One of the groups I do here, it’s called Rape And Molest. They struggle with a lot of guilt in that group. You know, a lot of these girls dress and act provocative. They get involved in substance abuse. They place themselves at risk and then they get taken advantage of. Now, we always say no means no. We’re real clear about that. But then we say, you know, you’ve got to look at how you market yourself. Girls can be hard work to help,” he chuckles. ‘They are so much more dramatic than boys!”