By Liz Ianelli
With Bret Witter
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"A must read for anyone concerned about teenage mental health." — Maia Szalavitz, NYT bestselilng author of Unbroken Brain co-author of The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog
A survivor of the Troubled Teen Industry exposes the truth about the dark side of a billion-dollar industry's institutionalized abuse—and shares the story of her own fight for justice.
I See You, Survivor is about what really happened at The Family and what continues to happen at thousands of facilities like it. Beyond the trauma, this book is about triumph, resilience, and an effort to help others, and it conveys Liz’s critical message for every survivor she sees:
“You are not broken. You are not unlovable. And you are not alone. There are millions of us. And I come with a message, for you, for them, for everyone: They act strong, but we are stronger. We are worthy. We are not alone. Speak, and we will be there for you. Speak, because there is power in your testimony. Speak, and we will win.”
This is a book first and foremost for survivors who can find support and community in these stories. It is also for parents, counselors, law makers and others to expose this industry for what it is: child abuse. And how that abuse has consequences for all of us.
I WOKE UP ON a long downward slope, with no idea where I was. A two-lane road stretched to the bottom of the hill, then up the other side. I could see other hills in the distance, almost mountains. There was nothing else around but rocks and trees.
My uncles were in the front seat. That made sense. My two uncles and parents had picked me up from Four Winds, an adolescent psychiatric facility, after lunch. My parents were in one car, my uncles in another. My parents were scared of me, I’ve been told. They brought my uncles for muscle. I didn’t know that. I climbed eagerly into the back seat of my uncle’s car, free of my burdens, happy to be going home… and woke up here, now, on this desolate road. It was the middle of the day. I hadn’t been tired. We were a long way from home. I didn’t like this at all.
“Where are we?”
“What’s going on?”
They wouldn’t look at me.
My father’s car, in front of us, slowed and turned onto a desolate single-lane dirt road. A dirty farmhouse, siding missing and windows wrapped in plastic, hovered over a steep rise. Two black barns were collapsing nearby. Beyond the house sat a machine, like a tractor with sharpened pitchforks in the front, curving downward toward the ground. A cow. A goat. Then nothing. Just a thin road disappearing over a hill.
I panicked. I pulled the door handle to jump out of the car, but it wouldn’t engage. The child locks were on. My uncles still hadn’t looked at me. Now I was terrified.
The hill seemed endless. I later discovered the drive from the farmhouse was eight-tenths of a mile, but it was steep. Wherever we were in the world, it was all hills. The road was bordered by fields of chest-high ornamental grass, with forest beyond. We topped the rise and headed downhill. I’m not sure what I saw that first day, but I know every inch now: a red barn, a three-story main building, two small houses, a chapel, and a pond. Everything was cheap and old except the main building, which was cheap and new. Everything was evil, especially that dark, dank pond.
“What is this place?” I was trying to be calm. Trying to be good. “What are we doing here?”
We curved down the hill to the front of the main building. My parents got out of their car and walked toward the front door. A woman stepped onto the porch to greet them. My parents never looked at me, but the woman did. She was tiny, with big hair and pink shoes. She smirked at my uncle’s car as she put an arm around my mother and led them inside.
Two boys came out a different door. I was fifteen; they were a few years older. They ripped open the car door.
“No,” I screamed as they jerked me to the ground.
“Please,” I shrieked, kicking frantically as they dragged me into a windowless room, then slammed the door behind them. That room was the boot closet, but there were no boots, just cubbyholes. Two girls were waiting for me.
“Take off your clothes,” the senior girl said.
“No,” I said. “There’s been a mistake. I’m not supposed to be here.”
She slapped me in the face. “That’s what they all say. Take off your clothes, or we’ll take them off for you.”
I pushed her. She pushed back. There was a fight: a full-on punching, scratching, kicking fight. I wasn’t taking off my clothes, not like this. To give in to this place was to fall into something black. I could feel it in my bones. So they threw me against the wall. I charged. They punched. I punched. They had to call in three more girls to hold me down while they ripped off my shirt, my pants, my shoes and socks and bra. They jerked the tiger-eye rings off my fingers. They tore the bracelets off my arms. They snapped the necklace my friend at Four Winds had given me that morning, when we thought I was going home. Everything I cared about, that place took from me: music, art, posters, mementos, jewelry, clothes, even my Nancy Drew books, and I had always found love and comfort in Nancy Drew. They took my friends. My freedom. My kindness. They took my sense of self, until I had no idea who I was or what I wanted. They took my memories and corrupted them. They took everything good inside me and made me hate it, mistrust it, and fear it, until I finally took it myself and drowned it in that dank black pond, believing my goodness was the evil pulling me down.
But that was later.
That afternoon, in the boot closet, they took my jewelry and clothes. They did it violently and with joy. Then they kicked me a duffel bag. “Put those on,” they said.
Inside there were two sweatshirts, a couple of shirts, underwear, socks, two pairs of pants. They weren’t mine. My mother had bought and packed them, as instructed. Every parent did.
They made me clean up so the blood wouldn’t show. The bruises, they knew, wouldn’t be visible until later. They walked me down a hallway to the office. My parents were inside with the woman from the porch and a very tall man.
“Hello, Lizzy,” the woman said. Lizzy wasn’t my name. My parents called me Elizabeth. I called myself Liz. So they took my name, too.
“This is where you’re going to be from now on, Lizzy. Your parents have had enough of you.”
I wish you could hear her voice. It was flat and nasal, impossible to place. I have tracked down every asshole in that place. I know where they were born, where they went to school (high school—most never went to college). I know their spouses, their kids, their job histories. I know their thoughts and deeds better than they know their own. I do that so I can put a thumb on their future. But Robin Ducey has eluded me. She seems to have been nobody and to have come from nowhere.
“It’s time to go now,” Robin said to my parents. The cruelty was unmistakable. She was enjoying this.
And my parents: they turned to go. Maybe a sad look in their eyes. Maybe. But no hugs. No kind words. Not even a goodbye.
I lost it. I had panicked when we passed that desolate, beaten farmhouse, but now terror overwhelmed me. My parents were turning their backs on me. They were leaving me here with these people. And it was going to be bad. I felt it in my soul. I wasn’t safe. And my parents saw it, too. They must have seen my distress. That was the betrayal. They saw terror grip their child, and they didn’t seem to care.
I don’t know what I said. I don’t know how I broke free from the two girls holding my arms. I lunged at my parents, screaming at them. Asking for another chance, maybe, or for them to take me back. They kept walking. I swung wildly at my father, hitting him hard in the upper arm. I was trying to get his attention. I was trying to get him to pay attention to this.
He put his hand on my mother’s back and pushed her out the door. When it closed behind them, I went wild, like a caged animal. I don’t know what happened, but I know I punched the big guy. I was five foot six, big for a fifteen-year-old girl. He was about eight inches taller. Mine was a glancing blow to the chin. He sledgehammered me in the side of the head. He hit me so hard, I slammed into the wall and slumped at its base. I was barely able to think, much less stand. But I could see the little woman, Robin, smirking behind him.
“Girls,” she said, “come get Lizzy.”
The girls picked me up.
“Lizzy,” Robin said as they held me facing her, “welcome to the Family.”
The girls hauled me out through the back door. It was about a hundred yards uphill to one of the houses, and as they walked me up the path, they recited a list of rules: Tuck in your shirt. No button-downs. No eye contact. I looked around, but my parents and uncles were gone.
“There’s been a mistake,” I said. “There’s been a terrible mistake. I’m not. I’m not supposed to be here.”
The girls didn’t answer.
“What is this place?”
“You have to ask permission before you can speak to me,” one of the girls said.
They marched on in silence. I hoped she was joking, but she wasn’t. “Can I talk to you?”
“What?” she snapped.
“How long will I be here?”
She laughed. “Until they say so,” she said.
They took me through a sunken side entrance into what had been the house’s underground garage. There were eight wooden bunk beds in a space no bigger than a small bedroom. The walls were crudely finished, the mattresses plastic. I’m sure the carpet was damp and squishy, because it was always damp and squishy.
“That’s your bunk,” they said. It was on the top, in a corner, next to the only window: one of those basement windows at ceiling height on the inside but ground level on the outside, too small for a person to squeeze through. I thought I was lucky to get the window, but I wasn’t, because it leaked. We periodically bleached the black mold off the walls and ceiling, but it was under the carpet, I know it, because water pooled under the window when it rained.
I had arrived around 4:00 p.m.; by now it was time for dinner. The girls walked me to the second floor of the main building. It was an open space with two long parallel tables and a shorter table between them, forming a horseshoe. They sat me down as the room filled up, slowly but also all at once, until every chair was taken. There were about fifty kids, but nobody spoke. A few glanced at me, carefully, but nobody stared. The waitstaff, also teens, brought out our dinners: two stuffed peppers, one red, one yellow. I stared at my plate. I was starving but nauseous from the fear. And I hate peppers.
Bang. It was the sound of heavy metal hitting wood.
Immediately, every kid put down their fork and sat up straight.
Bang. They turned to the shorter table at the front of the room. Eight adults were sitting facing us. I saw Robin. The big guy who had punched me, Bob Runge, was dropping the knife. Every time its metal base hit the table, it made a ferocious bang. Bang. Bang.
It stopped. The room was silent.
“Lizzy.” Robin’s voice. “Stand up.”
I stood up.
“Over there.” She pointed to a spot in front.
“Lizzy is here because her parents are tired of her,” Robin began, launching into a flat, emotionless takedown. Lizzy’s fat. She’s lazy. She’s ugly. She’s a prostitute, a drunk, a drug addict. She’s hateful. Nobody likes her. She’s lucky she’s not dead. “But we will save her, won’t we, Family?”
“Yes, Robin,” the kids said.
“We’ll save her from herself.”
“Yes, Robin,” the group said.
When she was done, another adult started insulting me. Fat. Ugly. Lazy. Slut. I know that was what he said, even if I can’t remember the details, because that was what they said to all the girls all the time.
“Yes, Paul,” they replied.
When he was done, they went to the next adult, and the next. Each took a turn insulting and degrading me, even though they’d never met me. Then the kids raised their hands, and Robin called on them one by one.
“You’re a slut, Lizzy,” a boy said. “You have a stinky vagina. It’s disgusting. I can smell it from here.”
What? Is that true?
“Stand up straight, Lizzy,” Robin barked.
“You’re selfish, Lizzy,” a girl said sadly. “You’ve hurt everyone who tried to love you. I’m ashamed to be around you.”
“Look at your new family members,” Robin barked. “You must always look your fellow family members in the eye. They are trying to save you.”
“You’re a sinner, Lizzy,” another girl said. “You don’t deserve forgiveness. But if you follow the program and believe in the Family way, you won’t die.”
I stood silently, making eye contact as teenagers I had never met stared me down and insulted me. It wasn’t real. How could it be real? After thirty or forty minutes, when it was finally over and they let me sit down, I was so disoriented and confused—and embarrassed—and hurt—that I didn’t know what to do.
“Eat your dinner.”
There was no way I was eating those cold stuffed peppers.
“You will eat your dinner.”
I stared down at my plate, afraid to lift my eyes.
Two kids jumped up and tried to force-feed me. They held my arms and jammed the peppers against my lips. They pushed my face into the plate. I wouldn’t give in. This wasn’t defiance. My mind and body had shut down. And I really, really hated peppers. Always have. Definitely always will.
“Lizzy doesn’t have to eat her peppers,” Robin announced.
It became legend: how easy Robin was on me that night. It wouldn’t take me long to realize why the other kids thought that way. Robin had shown me something truly rare: a morsel of pity. I was there for more than two and a half years. I never saw it again.
After the meal was “Nightly Reflection,” down on your knees begging for mercy from the Virgin Mary in the empty third-floor attic. Then back to our basement dorm.
It was sixteen girls in a cheaply converted one-car garage with one toilet, one shower, and one sink. Girls weren’t talking; they were hustling to get ready for bed. Still, it was loud. Sixteen girls in a small, enclosed space are loud. It haunts me: the sound of that place. The constant sound.
I tried to make myself small as I slipped into the bathroom to pee. There was no stall, just a toilet in the open. I struggled to relax. I am not a public pee-er. I don’t even like people to hear my tinkle. Finally, though, I was comfortable enough to…
“What do you think you’re doing?” It was the girl who had stripped me and beaten me in the broom closet.
“Um, going to the…”
She grabbed me off the toilet. I was done, mostly, not that it mattered. If I’d pissed myself, she wouldn’t have cared.
“Never speak to me without permission.”
“Yes, um… okay.”
“Never try to get away from me again.”
She was my Shadow. A Shadow was another teen assigned to be with you at all times: when you worked, when you ate, when you walked, when you prayed, in the bathroom. Shadow was a common punishment, or Sanction, as punishments were called. Double Shadow, two students, was also common. Shadow was mandatory for every new kid for at least a month.
I went to my bunk. Nobody said a word. If you think there was any kindness, or empathy, or understanding in that room, if you think we girl-talked or braided each other’s hair or giggled when the lights went out, then you don’t understand yet what they did to us. There was the rage of the boot closet, the cruelty of the dining room, and nothing else.
I know what they were thinking of me because within a month, I was thinking it of new girls, too: fresh meat.
“Lights out,” a girl announced. There was no staff in the dorms. We policed ourselves, and we did it ruthlessly. When the dorm leader ordered lights out, nobody spoke back. They lay in their bunks. The dorm leader pushed her bunk in front of the only door. This was Landlocking: blocking a door with a bunk or other heavy object. The door was usually locked from the outside, but Landlocking made sure we were trapped for the night.
I tried to be small. I tried to shrink and disappear. The bunks were normal height, but the ceiling was low. I had about a foot of space. When I turned on my side, my shoulder touched the ceiling. I stared at the stained drop tile above my head—I remember every inch of that filthy tile—and tried not to think, not to catastrophize, not to panic or die inside. But as soon as the lights went out, I started crying, and I couldn’t stop. I tried to hold my breath. I put my hand over my mouth. I rolled over and buried my face in the thin, musty pillow. But all night it was:
“Chill out, new girl.”
“You better shut up.”
“Nobody cares about your tears.”
It was Tuesday, September 28, 1994. Day 1 of 993.
It would only get worse from there.
She Beats Me
DAY 2, 5:00 a.m., lights on, as always. The senior girls ripped me out of my bunk onto the wet carpet. That carpet: the smell gags me, two decades later. I can feel the way it squished up into the spaces between my toes.
“New girl, clean the bathroom.”
I scrubbed the toilet, sink, drains, shower. Then morning prayer on the third floor of the main building, my stomach rumbling. I hadn’t eaten in fifteen hours. But you learn to love starvation. You crave it after a while. Otherwise, it’s torture.
After breakfast in the second-floor dining room, probably wet scrambled eggs and a sausage patty, our usual, I was taken by Robin to a room on the first floor with a table, a few pencils, and a stack of loose-leaf paper.
She sat me down in the only chair. “Make a list of all the things that landed you here,” she said.
“Please,” I said, “let me talk to my parents.”
“Write,” she said, and left me alone. Even my Shadow was gone.
This was Inventory. Every new kid had to do it. It was based on the fourth step of Alcoholics Anonymous: Make a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves. This place was loosely based, I learned later, on AA. An angry, violent, fundamentalist Christian version.
So I made a searching and fearless moral inventory: I ran away with a group of boys to ride bikes. I hit my sister. I hated my mother. I skipped school. I didn’t talk to my therapist.
Then I waited for what seemed like forever, but was probably more like half an hour, for Robin to return.
“Not enough,” she said, and left.
I thought up a few more true things. I was kicked out of school. I had a bad attitude. I hit my mother. I screamed at my father. I smoked cigarettes a few times. I sipped a beer.
“Not enough,” Robin said.
This time I just waited for her to come back. I didn’t have anything else to say. An hour passed, maybe. There was no clock; this was before cell phones; I didn’t have a watch. They had taken everything from me when I arrived.
“You won’t get out of here, Lizzy,” Robin said, “until you write down every sin you have committed and every terrible thing you have done.”
“Like your drug addiction.”
I wasn’t a good kid. I admit that. I was every parent’s nightmare. I talked back. I was mopey. I snuck out of the house. I “made a scene” and embarrassed my mother. I stopped going to school. But I never used drugs.
“Admit what you’ve done, Lizzy,” Robin said. “Admit your sins. It’s the only way to be free.”
I was never close to my mother. Maybe it was postpartum depression. Maybe it was trauma, because I was born barely one year after her first child was stillborn, and she never dealt with the pain. It was a pretty lonely childhood.
When I was eight, a close adult relative started molesting me. By the time I was nine, we were having sex. It was rape, but I thought we were in a relationship. When I was eleven, my grandmother walked in on us naked. He always raped me in the spare bedroom at my grandmother’s house.
My father spanked us as punishment. I remember every place I was standing when my mother slapped me in the face. She was so good at it, she could slap all three of us kids with one shot, like the Three Stooges. My godmother told me recently about my mother turning and slapping me in the face in a grocery store when I was five or six years old and then walking with me out of the store as if nothing had happened. Apparently I was being annoying.
This was different. My grandmother pulled me out of the bedroom and beat me with a wooden rolling pin. It was an Italian rolling pin, so it was long and thin but solid.
“Never tell anyone about this,” she yelled as I huddled on her plastic-covered, cream-colored living room carpet. “Never tell.”
She never told anybody, and she never did anything, because my abuser—my “boyfriend”—went right on raping me in that bedroom for another year, until I turned twelve and had my first period. My parents made a big deal out of that. My father bought me a dozen red roses, a family tradition.
“I hear you’re a woman now,” my abuser said the next time we were alone. I could hear something different in his voice.
“Yes,” I said.
“We won’t be seeing each other anymore. Do you understand?”
I didn’t understand, so I didn’t say anything.
“Do you understand?”
“Good,” he said, and walked out.
He lived two hours away. He stopped finding excuses to come to town. I have only seen him twice in the thirty years since, both times at funerals, and even though I was a little kid, I knew it would be like that when he walked out the door, that he would never speak to me again. And I was heartbroken, heartbroken, that the love of my little life had dumped me cold.
“You’re an alcoholic,” Robin said.
“I’m not,” I said. I had spiraled, but not into alcohol. I was twelve. I was too young. I sipped a few beers at family barbecues at fourteen, fifteen, when someone was passing a can around, but that was it.
“You’re an alcoholic, Lizzy,” Robin insisted, “and the fact that you are denying it proves that it’s true.”
I hated my mother. That’s the truth. I punched her, kicked her, and once even bit her. I yelled and threw things at the wall. I spent hours by myself at a swampy creek near our house. I caught frogs and cut them open so I could study their insides. Then I stapled their bodies to our house. I hate admitting that because I don’t think you’ll understand. It sounds like I was a budding psychopath. But those frogs were a message to my father, the one parent who loved and protected me. It felt like the only time he paid attention to me anymore was when he was angry, so I had to make him angry enough to see me. I didn’t fully understand it at the time, but those dead frogs were expressing a hurt I couldn’t speak and he could never hear.
My parents took me out of Catholic school, which was fine. I had ADHD. I couldn’t sit still. I didn’t like their books. Why can’t I read Nancy Drew? I struggled with math. Why can’t I just do art? I wanted to be an artist. Why does an artist need math?
My parents put me in the public school for the sixth grade. The bullying started on the bus the first morning. I was aggressive at home, with my family, but never outside. I took the bullying until I couldn’t take it anymore. Then I stopped taking the bus, which meant I started missing school.
“How many beers did you drink, Lizzy?”
“I don’t know. Two?”
“You know that’s not true.”
Robin smiled. “And how often did you drink? Every day?”
- “Searing, profane, horrifying, but ultimately hopeful—read I See You, Survivor to understand how abuse is sold to parents as treatment for “troubled teens” and why these programs must be stopped. Liz’s story is hard to take, but thousands of young people have survived similar attack therapies and many are still being forced into “wilderness programs,” “boot camps,” “emotional growth,” and “therapeutic” boarding schools today. A must-read for anyone concerned about teenage mental health and how systems intended to help can go terribly wrong.”—Maia Szalavitz, NYT bestselling author of Unbroken Brain and co-author of The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog
- "A ferocious, raw, and inspiring story of triumph over trauma—and a powerful reminder that we must listen to those our society is far too quick to dismiss as broken or lost."—Beth Macy, NYT bestselling author of Dopesick
“This book is deep. It will get deep into your mind, and deep into your heart. But it’s also fire. Liz Ianelli came here to burn down their lies and save her people, and you can feel her heat on every page. You won’t forget it. You’ll be changed. Because I See You, Survivor issues the same challenge as every great memoir: You heard the triumphs I made out of my pain, my anger, and my failures. Now what are you going to make out of yours?”—Chris Wilson, author of The Master Plan
- “In between bombshell revelations, Ianelli celebrates the resilience of her fellow survivors. Her quest for justice against so-called “tough love” schools that allow abusers to act with near-impunity is incendiary and uncompromising. … this unflinching memoir presents a moving message of triumph over trauma.”—Publisher’s Weekly
"A devastating explication of widespread overlooked abuse and a call for change that must be heeded."—Kirkus Reviews
- On Sale
- Aug 29, 2023
- Page Count
- 304 pages
- Hachette Books