On the talk-page on Wikipedia people were discussing whether the teenagers who are forced to attend the soon closed Aspen Achievement Academy were students or detainees. Here is a story from one of the now adults who were forced to walk the wilderness.
Yes, I felt like a detainee
It is not my intent to become involved in an argument over the proper use and definition of the word "detainee". However, this debate has been recently brought to my attention, and I feel the need to contribute. As an Aspen Achievement Academy "alumni" or survivor, the question of whether or not I felt like a "detainee" has been posed to me. The answer to that question is "yes".
This is my story:
I ask that any parent thinking about enrolling their child in The Aspen Achievement Academy, to please reconsider. As a former student of the program myself, this request stems from my first hand experiences in the program. Please be for warned that the organization’s advertisements are misleading. I did not see any of the literature provided to my parents until after my return from Utah. After the initial review of a videotape, and several pamphlets provided by the program, I was disgusted. Aspen did not accurately portray itself. My parents were shocked when I came home and they saw the evidence in my backpack, and heard my stories. They had no idea what they had really signed me up for. According to advertisements for the Aspen Achievement Academy, the program resembled a rugged, yet therapeutic summer camp experience. In reality, this could not have been farther than the truth.
It has been nearly twelve years since I spent those two months in the Utah wilderness, and my experience there still haunts me to this day. The extensive neglect that my fellow students and I experienced was unacceptable. I’ll never forget May 11th, 1994. It’s a date that will trouble me for the rest of my life. That morning two strangers awakened me at 5 am. They ordered me to get up and get dressed "because I was going to Utah for a long time". I told them "I couldn’t go to Utah; I had to go to school that day!" However, as it turned out I had no choice. After a lengthy physical struggle with these people, I found myself forced onto a second rate airplane (who’s ever heard of “Morris” airlines anyway?) bound for Salt Lake City. That day remains in my memory as one of the most emotionally devastating and difficult things I have ever been through. My family had betrayed me; they had forever destroyed my full trust in them.
I remember before the program even started, they took us to a therapist, or maybe he was a psychiatrist (they refused to tell me anything), in Provo Utah. It was his job to be sure we were evaluated before being sent out into the desert. One of the worst moments in my life was when this man looked me in the eye and told me that he did NOT believe that I was a very good candidate for the program, but that he was going to recommend that I attend anyway. He said I seemed like a relatively normal and stable teenager. My heart sank; I could actually feel it. He validated this by saying that he thought the program would be good for anyone, even himself.
I felt so helpless. He also told me that my parents had paid $23,000 for my time in the desert. I don’t know where that money went; because it certainly did not go to proper care and feeding of my fellow students and I. Sometimes I suspect that that psychiatrist in Provo saw a fair amount of it for his “recommendation”. All that money my parents spent, for me to just walk for 52 days. Against my will I walked in a line, over cow patties and large rocks, through a desert wasteland, day after day. I remember walking along sheer cliffs with no safety ropes or harnesses, eating from dirty and rancid dishes, and having to use our bare hands to dig up and relocate human "waste" on several occasions. But, I'm getting ahead of myself, all of that didn’t start until a few days later.
The initial “evaluation” period in Utah lasted a couple more days. During that time I stayed with a family in Provo, Utah. The wife (sometimes literally) dragged me around town with her. I joined her while she did things like get her hair done and pick up her kids from school. The family talked to me about God and accepting the Mormon religion into their hearts. It was a confusing couple of days. No one would answer any of my questions. I wish now that I would have screamed and tried harder to run away while we were out in public. We went grocery shopping, and I stayed by her side. During the night I was forced to stay in the living room of her house, guarded by inferred sensitive alarms "so that I could not escape". At the time I thought maybe I was sent to Utah to stay with her. Obviously I had no idea what I was in for. She took me to be drug tested. I have no doubt that the results of this test came up clean. I also spent many hours filling out a lengthy “true or false” personality evaluation. I remember specifically questions such as “I am a secret messenger of God. True or False” and “I like to physically harm small animals. True or False.” It was insulting and humiliating to answer those questions, I wasn’t mentally ill. Looking back, I doubt anyone ever even looked at my answers anyway. I had no idea where I was, or why I was with this strange family.
I slept on their couch for two nights. Then I was transported in a rickety van several hundred miles south to (what I now know was) a remote area of Southern Utah, near the Henry Mountains. That’s when the horror really started.
During the initial days (called “Impact phase”) my fellow group members and I were forced to hike for hours on end with absolutely no food. Our bodies weren’t used to such grueling activity or carrying the primitive backpacks. Several kids screamed, cried and fought. Some collapsed and refused to go on. The counselors were all in good shape. They carried comfortable backpacks, and were able to eat. They stood by, laughing and talking amongst themselves, waiting for us to pick up the fallen victim, even drag them if necessary. I was too exhausted to even talk, let alone expend any energy on tears. They told us nothing; we were at their mercy. I really and truly thought we were going to die. My Mom wrote me a letter a week later, in which she said she had heard that the first phase was “pretty hard”. I resent that understatement to this day. Finally after a few days of “impact phase” we were given a little food (two over ripe bananas to be exact).
Then, later the next day we got a little more, but it was never much. We were starving in Utah; I lost over 20 pounds, and I wasn’t overweight to begin with. We simply were not provided with adequate amounts of food. Often times we were given no food at all, or forced to hike, exhausted for many miles before any food was provided. On a good day, in the mornings we were able to eat half a cup of cold uncooked oatmeal, and then at night if we were lucky we could eat the same amount of cooked potatoes and rice. For a treat we occasionally ate salted pork fat or butter. If we could not start a fire this food was consumed raw. I still eat too fast, and too much as a result of this. To this day I still struggle with my weight and feel like I need to eat as much as possible. Before Utah, it wasn’t ever an issue for me.
Furthermore, the healthcare was unacceptable. There were three specific instances that come to mind concerning this subject. The first concerns my knees. I was born with knee problems (a tendency for my kneecaps to dislocate). During my time with Aspen my knees dislocated twice. This was a preexisting condition, and in no way created by Aspen. However, after each incident I was allowed to rest for only a few minutes and then was forced to hike on the injury. I have still had persistent problems to this day. In fact, a couple of months ago I finally opted for surgery. The surgeon found extensive scar tissue and damage. I wonder how much of it came from those hikes. For the last month in Utah, I also walked on what felt (and looked) to be a broken toe. We were pushing a very heavy handcart that ran over my foot. I got the feeling that they didn’t really believe us when we were hurt. I was never examined, so I can’t be sure if it was broken, but the pain was excruciating for many weeks.
At one point I contracted the stomach flu during the program. One of the counselors came in sick with it once, and I caught it. She got to go home immediately. Meanwhile, I spent three days hiking and vomiting. Eventually I had finally fainted and collapsed several times from the exhaustion, and medical help was brought in. They waited until I was lying helpless in the dirt, physically unable to continue. This was not an acceptable response.
During my two months there, I was allowed to bathe only twice, both times in the same mud and cow filled streams that we drank from. I tried to do the best I could to stay clean, and splash my face with water daily, but it was difficult. Several of the girls got bladder infections. The second bath I took didn’t come until the very end of the program, right before our parents came. We had to stand in the mucky bottom of an icy stream and wash as best we could. Before our parents saw us, we had to wash and change into fresh clothes. If we didn’t then we couldn’t eat. We argued that we wanted them to see us as we really were, but there was never any reasoning with the staff. My Mom didn’t see the tattered truth of what I really wore until we were back home. I remember her crying when she did.
The web site for aspen Achievement Academy contains photos of clean, smiling teenagers. Their clothes are not in rags. There is even a picture of pensive teenagers sitting around a campfire, with a box of hot chocolate in front of them! There is no way we were ever given anything like hot chocolate! These photos in no way resemble the reality. Often times we drank from streams with high sulfur content that made us very sick. More often than not the water in my jug was brown. Sometimes there was even brine shrimp swimming around in it. I’ll never forget the feeling of them squirming on my tongue as I tried to swallow the gritty water, always to the sound of a counselor saying “come on suck it down!” We had to drink it; we had no choice.
As a "student" I had no rights, I was not even treated like a human. I was a prisoner. In fact there were several other teens there with me who had been sent there by the court system as an alternative to Juvenile Hall. Sometimes I couldn’t even pee behind a bush without the rest of the group having to stand guard. People tried to run away, but were hunted down and brought back. At night they took our shoes so that we couldn’t escape into the wilderness, and believe me we would have tried.
As a member of Aspen’s Group 211, I saw a thirteen year old girl turn purple and then blue as the staff sat by waiting for her to get herself up off the ground and keep walking. We walked in circles, up and down mountains, in the heat, in the cold and in the dark. We were always lost. For most of the time we carried a pack made of a blue tarp with seat belt material for straps. It was painful and awkward. Towards the end they finally gave us a real backpack, and more food. That was what our parents saw when the came to meet us. At home people watched OJ Simpson’s white bronco racing down a Los Angeles freeway.
Meanwhile, we walked, completely unaware of what was happening in the outside world. I got the feeling that a war could have broken out, and they wouldn’t have told us anything. We knew absolutely nothing of the outside world for those two months. My Mom was surprised that I got home and had no knowledge of the OJ incident.
We could not even know where we were, or how long we would be there; let alone what was going on at home. If we asked any questions about such things we were punished by having to carry a large stone in our pocket, one for each question. This wouldn't have been so bad if we weren't hiking. But in that circumstance every added ounce of weight can be excruciating. I knew that I was somewhere in Utah, but that was all. There were “no future questions” allowed. We couldn’t even ask when we would get to stop and rest, or be allowed a drink of water, because that concerned the future.
The program relies largely on scare tactics and threats to coerce students into behaving. There was the constant threat that if we didn’t do what was expected, we would be forced to stay longer, or even repeat the entire 52 days, but by ourselves without a group. They told us that our parents had no choice in whether or not we stayed in the program longer. Looking back I can see how ridiculous these claims were, but at the time they seemed to be a real threat. No one really stayed longer; we all went home that day in July.
We did go home as compliant teenagers, but mostly because we were so terrified of returning. My hiking boots were brand new at the start of the program. However, by the end, the tread on the bottoms had worn down completely. They were basically flat bottom boots. That’s how much hiking we did. In fact, that’s pretty much all we did. We hiked and we hiked, always carrying that heavy backpack.
On my high school transcripts there are credits for classes from “Wayne County High School”. I never went to such a school. They are really from my time at Aspen. These “classes” consisted of the completion a series of “curriculum” packets. They were really just confusing worksheets stapled together. The worksheets had obviously been typed out by one of the Aspen staff members. The physical education credits however, I had earned tenfold! There was a wonderful older man by the name of “LaVoy” who I found out later, was supposed to be the teacher. To the best of my knowledge, he had been a local sheep farmer for his whole life, and had never taught in any classroom. He would come and visit rarely, and when he did it was never for an actual academic lesson that I can remember. I do remember that never the less, that his visits were one of the few pleasant things about the whole experience. Actually, the academic instruction was a responsibility delegated to one of the older students and me. We, of course did not understand anything included in the curriculum anymore than the other kids did, yet were the ones expected to “teach”. At the time I had no idea what, or how to teach. They told us it was a reward, because we were always the first ones packed up and crushing the coals from the fire every morning. It seemed like a strange reward to me.
Aspen markets itself as a “therapeutic” environment. I find that strange too. There was very little actual “therapy” involved. Once a week, for half and hour or less a “therapist” would come speak with us. This was an occasion we looked forward to because for one, the therapist would bring each of us an apple to eat, and for two, it got us out of having to hike for a couple of hours. Other than that they were of no consequence. These therapy sessions were to brief and far between to be of any help. Mostly in Aspen we just walked and starved. The only other mention of something resembling therapy came each morning when one of the 19 to 21 year old staff members would ask us to use a single word to describe how we felt for that day. We’d go around the circle saying things like “sad”, “mad” or “depressed”. The staff would nod. Then we’d all put on our packs and spend the next eleven hours walking. The “therapy” was a joke.
Apparently the “therapist” had periodic phone conversations with my parents. I don’t know what they could have talked about; the therapist knew little of me, or my daily experiences in the program.
My main connection to my parents was the letters that we wrote back and forth. The staff had to sensor them all. I never sent or received a sealed envelope. I had to be careful about what I wrote. I tried to tell my parents what was happening, but it was hard. When I got home I found out that they warned our parents that we would exaggerate and not to believe our first hand descriptions of the program. I even heard that my parents had to actually sign over custody of me to the program, and couldn’t have taken me out if they wanted to. I don’t know if that was true, or just another scare tactic used by the Aspen staff, but that’s what they told us.
To this day my parents and I rarely (if ever) talk about Utah. About once every few years I casually bring up the subject. They never do. I still have a hard time finding the ability to forgive them in my heart. I hated them like never before during the entire program. I was not happy when they arrived in Utah for the last 2 days of the program, nor did our relationship improve once we got home. It got worse for a while, and to this day I still hold a grudge because of the experience.
I know that they had been misinformed, but it is still difficult to forgive them. Before I went to Utah, I was a relatively good kid. I was seventeen years old. Sure, I wasn’t perfect. I had tried smoking cigarettes, tried smoking pot (and hated it) and had sex with two people. When compared to my peers I was fairly normal. Aspen didn’t care; they’ll take anyone whose parents will pay. After I came back from the program I had lost all sense of self worth and self-respect. I decided I didn’t care; it no longer mattered if I continued to resist the bad things in life, because I had already been so severely punished. Within a month of my return I had tried hard-core drugs (such as hallucinogens and Crystal Meth), I spent time in crack houses, with homeless drug addicts, and became a heavy smoker. I also had a lot of casual unprotected sex with different partners, had essentially decided to drop out of high school, and even had an affair with a much older man.
Before Aspen I wouldn’t have done any of this. But because of the fact that I’d been punished already whether I was "good" or not, I didn’t care anymore. I’d been through a much more traumatic experience in Utah, drugs and street people couldn’t even compare. Also, after hearing about some of the things the other kids in Aspen had done in their lives I felt like a prude. Actually in comparison to some of them, I still wasn’t very out of control. I learned not to trust my parents under any circumstances. While I had once shared the details of my life with them, I had learned what they were capable of. I knew I had to be careful about letting them in ever again. After Utah, I lied and pretended. I felt like I had to; because I was so afraid that they would send me back if I wasn’t absolutely perfect.
many years after the experience I was tormented by nightmares about Utah and my time there. I’ve been back to the state, and even out into the desert where the program was held, all in an effort to make peace with the memories. Slowly, over time I did recover. I only dream about it ever few months now, and I’m rarely kept up at night by the memories anymore. I think my parents are still paying off the loan they took out to pay for Aspen. I wish they had used the money to help me in school, or something like that instead.
Eventually I recovered, and got on a good track. But I feel that (had I not been sent to Aspen) I would have become a healthy productive adult much sooner. In recent years I have heard that the program has been altered slightly. Apparently students now progress through the program at their own rate. It is no longer an issue to wait for everyone in the group to complete a task. Maybe this helps to control the animosity and resentment that existed in my group. We hated each other much of the time. Still, no matter how many changes are made in the program, or how many favorable accounts they post on their web site, I would NEVER recommend this program to anyone.
Now despite the “Aspen Experience”, twelve years later I have been able to successfully graduate from college, find a healthy love relationship, a job as a teacher, and even quit smoking. I have become the person my parents had hoped I would be. But, I still have nightmares of Utah.
I remember Aspen T-shirts that read, “You’ll go to Hell and Back”. They were half right; I went to hell all right, but it took nearly a decade for me to make it back.
Datasheet on the program on Fornits Wiki
The original statement - slightly edited to make it easier to read