WireTap

Just Call Them Crazy

Youth activists have long been marginalized and ignored by their parents, teachers and lawmakers. Now a new psychiatric label -- "Oppositional Defiance Disorder" -- is being used to take away their rights and keep them locked up in reform camps.
Crazy?Alex Asch probably never thought he would be forced by police, private security, his parents, and the weight of the law to leave his choice of studies for a Mormon boot camp -- but on August 10, 2002 that's exactly what happened.

Alex was attending the Institute for Social Ecology, a radically inclined institution of higher education located in Plainfield, Vermont. It was the last day of summer classes when his parents hired two juvenile transport officers to remove him from the Institute. After removing him from the school he was forced to go to Turnabout Stillwater, a juvenile rehabilitation program located in Utah affiliated with the Mormon church. There he will be held against his will until his 18th birthday in June 2004.

Youth activists and organizers have long been marginalized and ignored by their parents, teachers and lawmakers. Even when youth activism is accepted it is usually in a condescending or patronizing manner when older and more experienced organizers run and co-opt youth efforts. But for organizers like Alex the threat is much more explicit: Just call them crazy, drug them, coerce them, and keep them locked up.

Alex AschAlex was officially diagnosed with "Oppositional Defiance Disorder," which is defined as a disorder including symptoms such as often losing one's temper, arguing with adults, actively defying or refusing to comply with adults' requests, deliberately annoying people, blaming others for mistakes, being touchy or easily annoyed, and often being spiteful, vindictive, or angry. In a workshop during the National Conference on Organized Resistance in January it was joked several times that with a definition like that almost all those with radical and anti-authoritarian beliefs could be labeled as "disordered."

"Who defines what is disordered behavior?" asked Diane Krauthamer, one of Alex's friends who was at the ISE when he was taken. "ODD is a just a construction of this truly disordered society. [People in positions of] authority make up disorders like ODD to explain the reactions of people like Alex to the squelching of freedom that is imposed on us."

"What is most disturbing to me about ODD and other 'disorders' is that there is no real attempt to ascertain the environmental picture -- the social, political, and economic factors that drive a person's behavior," said Leah Harris, a progressive psychiatrist from Washington DC. "We're asking the wrong questions -- we shouldn't be asking, 'does this kid have a disease called ODD?' but 'why is this kid so at odds with his or her society?'"

Since being taken to Turnabout Stillwater it has been difficult to maintain communication with Alex due to the monitoring of his mail for materials deemed "inappropriate" by staff. In one of the letters he was able to send out he indicated that he had not seen the world outside of the camp for more than fifty days. He wrote that he has tremendous difficulty being able to even think under the circumstances and that he concentrates on his memories, friendships, and beliefs to ward off the "frightening miserable emotional state being brought upon me within my present situation." He often writes about the psychological fascism employed to "correct" his behavior and beliefs, and he says he is determined to resist being converted.

While at the Institute for Social Ecology Alex enthusiastically studied topics such as animal liberation, radical environmentalism, philosophical anarchism, linguistics, sexuality, dialectical philosophy, and countercultural movements. While living in New Jersey he had been involved in organizing around environmental and animal liberation issues. He also was helping to build a democratic economy by working with Ever Reviled Records, a worker-owned label releasing progressive and radical music.

"To the dismay of his parents, Alex's life was going down a path that was different from their old and obsolete values," said Darren Kramer of Ever Reviled Records after finding out what happened to Alex. "Alex's parents would use whatever means they had at their disposal to try to coerce him into adopting their values. They sent him to school psychiatrists, prescribed him sedative drugs, and put him in special programs -- all against his will."

Sadly, because Alex was 16 years old at the time of his removal from ISE he has virtually no rights and no control over what happens to him. In the eyes of the law Alex's fate is the hands of his parents, who through their social position can use psychiatry, school counselors, the courts and the law to treat him as an object to be molded.


Psychiatry has often played a key role in the marginalization and control of "social undesireables" or "deviants" throughout history.

Leah said that she could not tell if there has been a measurable increase in the use of psychiatry to repress activists, but she pointed out that psychiatry has often played a key role in the marginalization and control of "social undesireables" or "deviants" throughout history -- from political activists to queers and transgendered people. Some of the most compelling examples of psychiatry being used against activists include Leonard Roy Frank, who went on to found the anti-psychiatry movement, and Daphne Scholinski, who was forced to wear dresses and feather boas as part of her "gender correction treatment."

Alex is like many youth activists who have fought to maintain their ideals in the midst of a society that is designed to restrict them. As Alex's friend and ISE classmate Diane Krauthamer put it: "Teachers, parents, and government officials often regard [young] people who refuse to submit to their authority as annoying and dysfunctional because we demand freedom every time they deny it."

Individuals who would like to support Alex are encouraged to write letters or if possible to send books about animal liberation, philosophy, and other countercultural topics (keeping in mind that they have to pass by the inspection of their "appropriateness" by staff). Materials for Alex can be sent to Alex Asch c/o Turnabout Stillwater 2738 S. 2000 E. Salt Lake City, UT 84109. Questions about Alex can be directed to Darren by sending a message to [email protected].

Stevphen Shukaitis, 23, is a sociology student at the New School for Social Research where he studies cooperative economic structures. He helps to produce Rise Up Radio, a youth produced show airing on WBAI 99.5 FM focusing focusing on arts, activism, and culture as resistance.
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