“Where are you taking me?”
It was the middle of the night, and two strangers dressed all in black were forcibly dragging Elizabeth Gilpin, then 15, out of her childhood bedroom. As they pulled her down the hall they passed her father, who looked on in grim silence.
Leading up to this moment, Gilpin — a gifted student and star athlete living in South Carolina — had been secretly burning her skin with ice and salt to jolt herself out of depression. She had survived a harrowing car accident: Her friend crashed into a tree while trying to get away from an angry drug dealer, and Gilpin had nearly flown through the windshield. She regularly coaxed her strict, religious parents into screaming matches and got fall-down drunk at parties.
“I definitely needed help,” Gilpin, now 32, told The Post. “I definitely needed a therapist. But I did not need [to go] where I went.”
In her new book “Stolen” (Grand Central), out July 20, Gilpin describes how after that horrible night, she became a ward of the troubled teen industry, which promises desperate parents an effective, tough-love approach to rehabilitating their out-of-control children. But as Gilpin learned — and as Paris Hilton, another veteran of the troubled teen industry, shared in her 2020 documentary “This Is Paris” — these programs often use controversial, humiliating and even abusive methods on their young charges.
Gilpin spent the next two years, from 2003 to 2005, away from home, first in a harsh wilderness program and then at a so-called therapeutic boarding school called Carlbrook.
“I thought I was going to be safe, because my parents were involved,” Gilpin said of her nighttime abduction. “I was not safe … sometimes I’m in shock that I actually did survive.”
Gilpin’s first stop was somewhere she calls “the woods:” a camping expedition for unruly high schoolers. Immediately, she was strip-searched, drug tested, told she would answer to a number instead of her name (“13”) and offered a dinner of dry — still dehydrated — rice and beans. She quickly found out that “eating hot” (food that was cooked) was a privilege that had to be earned, and that her shoes would be confiscated at bedtime so she couldn’t run away.
“I had never felt so scared in my entire life,” she writes of her first few nights sleeping in the pitch-black forest.
Gilpin was desperate to go home, but in a letter her mother explained that returning wasn’t an option.
“We feel that a boarding school would help your self-esteem so you won’t need fulfillment with beer, pot and parties,” she wrote.
Soon it became clear that the woods was just a monthslong prologue to her second destination: the Carlbrook school in Halifax, Va.
Carlbrook, opened in 2002, was one of “hundreds” of schools and programs for troubled teens across the country, which charged families “anything from five to six thousand dollars a month, for a couple of years, to much more than that,” according to Maia Szalavitz, author of “Help at Any Cost: How the Troubled-Teen Industry Cons Parents and Hurts Kids.” These places — which ranged from the Nancy Reagan-endorsed Straight, Incorporated, to the notorious Élan school in Poland, Maine, to Hilton’s alma mater, Provo Canyon School — all had roots in the practices of a 20th century California-based drug treatment program turned cult called Synanon, Szalavitz told The Post.
“The idea that breaking people, and breaking down their personality, is a way to stop bad behavior, spread from Synanon,” Szalavitz said. “The problem is that traumatizing people doesn’t actually help them.”
Gilpin arrived at Carlbrook hoping it would be better than the woods, but her expectations plummeted when she was strip-searched again upon arrival. Her first night, she was introduced to the practice of “smooshing,” in which male and female students, as well as adult staff members, all tangled together in an obligatory cuddle session.
It made Gilpin “uncomfortable,” she said, but what followed over the next week was much worse.
She got to know the school’s therapeutic practices, which involved getting brutally berated by staff, who also encouraged kids to call each other names as a way, they said, to help them confront their demons. Gilpin — at the time a virgin who had only ever experimented with alcohol and pot — quickly grew accustomed to being called a whore and a drug addict. At workshops, the school used tactics such as sleep deprivation and dehydration to turn up the intensity. Punishments for not participating ranged from manual labor (scrubbing toilets) to social isolation (not being allowed to speak to other students for a week or more).
In one workshop, the students were required to physically fight each other for a spot on an imaginary lifeboat. At another, kids scribbled cherished childhood memories onto a red paper heart. Then, they were forced to tear up their creations as their peers said terrible things about them.
Gilpin said this was one of her lowest moments: “Something about having a child draw on a heart, everything that represents what they love in life, and then ripping a piece off as every kid in the circle says the worst thing they can think of about them — that to me is so honestly disgusting.”
Gilpin tried to tell her parents what was going on at Carlbrook, but all of her brief calls home were monitored and cut off when she started complaining. In December 2005, at the age of 17, she graduated. She went home to finish high school, but left soon afterward amid strained relations with her family.
In Los Angeles, and then New York where she worked at Vogue as an accessories assistant, Gilpin started using harder drugs, including opiates and cocaine. She developed an eating disorder.
Szalavitz said this is typical of many troubled teen alums: “The thing that is stunning about this is that a lot of the kids who were sent did not actually have severe problems before they went, but afterwards, addictions worsened or developed in the first place, because they were told, ‘you are scummy junkies,’ basically.”
Gilpin said that for years, “rock bottom just kept getting lower and lower and lower.” But she also appreciates that she got lucky. She said she personally knows a number of Carlbrook graduates who either overdosed, or died by suicide, including one of her best friends at the school.
Carlbrook permanently closed in 2015. That same year, Gilpin discovered a new passion: acting. The actress and writer now splits her time between Los Angeles and Nashville, Tenn., and although she still drinks occasionally, she never touches drugs.
She’s also forgiven her parents for sending her through the troubled teen pipeline.
“It’s definitely painful,” she said. “But at the same time, so many people were lied to. I get being scared for your child and wanting to help them.”
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