It has happened again. Last night I met someone else who endured “The Family” in the mid ’80s before it became the Family Foundation School (FFS). I know the acronym is ironic because For F*ck Sake the place was a twisted cult run by a perverted monster. I’ll get to that, a little background first for those that don’t know the story.
In January of 1984, I was basically homeless. I was sent to an adolescent rehab for drug and alcohol abuse in the Fall of 1983. I went in with a bad attitude and came out with a determination to stay sober. At 15, I saw where my choices and current path were destructive and opted to fall in line. Pretty incredible right?
Two days after I got out of rehab my mom remarried a guy named Ray. My mother and Ray met in AA and were both in early recovery. Twelve step recovery programs deter relationships the first year of sobriety and they clearly did not heed that warning. What could possibly go wrong? Everything. A day or two after they were married mom and Ray got into a heated argument and Ray flipped a coffee table with a lit candle on it. That was enough for my mom to become determined to find alternate housing for me, my brother and herself. We just couldn’t find a place for the three of us together.
My brother was a good student, in the high school band and was landing leads in high school plays. He had some options with local families so he took one of those. Being a freshly minted sober teen made finding a place to crash a little tricky for me. No one in my extended family would take me in. No one. I didn’t have a relationship with my father at the time, beyond his legal obligations which he complied with haphazardly. I landed with my rehab roommate and her family in Bricktown, New Jersey.
I was there a week or two when things went into a rapid spiral. I don’t recall why it didn’t work but I was told to leave. Maybe two teens in recovery was too much to handle. It was generous of them to take me in at all. At this point my mother was still trying to find a way to untangle herself from her marriage to Ray. She stayed in the house with him for a little while but was afraid to have her kids there. She had been in physically abusive relationships before and I know she was scared out of her mind. She did some digging and found a place in Long Eddy, New York which claimed it was a safe, wholesome environment for teens in recovery.
I went in with an open mind. A lack of options does that, it makes you lean into situations that are less than ideal. I arrived in early January, my mom dropped me off. On the first day, they cut my long hair to chin length and took all of my personal belongings. I was given farm work clothes and boots to replace my own wardrobe. I was informed that I could not make calls, write letters or have any contact with the outside world for a minimum of 90 days. There was no TV, no radio and no books beyond Hazelden. You couldn’t even keep a journal. These rules were daunting but again, a lack of options kept me somewhat neutral if not optimistic.
I was pretty sick when I arrived, likely bronchitis. They took pity on me and let me rest in bed that first full day. I was in and out of a feverish sleep being woken up intermittently by the activities in the house. It must have been midday, I heard meal time taking place above me. Meal time was especially atrocious at the family. I couldn’t make out the words but the tone and intonation that I could hear through the ceiling was jarring. The hairs on the back of my neck stood up and I could feel the anxiety swell like an air bubble that started at my toes and ascended to my eyes. I was terrified and I decided to leave.
Physically ill yet determined, I dressed in the clothes I was given and quietly walked out the back door. I got a few miles away and saw a small blue house with lots of trees around it. I decided to take a chance and I knocked on the door. An older man answered, he didn’t seem threatening so, I asked politely if I could use the phone. The man obliged and I called my mother.
I tried to explain to my mother how awful the place was and how scared I was to be there. I don’t recall her words but when I hung up, I was hopeful that I wouldn’t have to go back. Those hopes were shattered within minutes when Tony, the founder of “The Family”, came back with two or three strapping young men to take me back to the farm.
I was hysterical and frightened like a caged animal confined with a larger, stronger predator. I screamed, I cried, there were likely flailing limbs as I tried to resist going back there with everything my 95 pound, 15 year old body could emit. It wasn’t enough. I was forcibly taken back and placed on the hot seat in the family room where I was berated for at least an hour by everyone that lived there. I was accused of getting drunk. In fact Tony told my mother that I did get drunk. I’m sure this tact was used to deter my mother from any potential second thoughts about her betrayal. He likely told her that I just needed some “tough love” to ensure I stayed on the right path. Tony Argiros was a master manipulator and pure evil, a real life monster.
After the hysterics, I centered myself and came up with a plan for survival, fall in line. Pretend to go along with their insanity, go along to get along. Fake it ’til you make it. I would become an obedient resident to limit their wrath. That was the path of least resistance in this place so I stuck to it. I did as I was told. Got up at 5am, did my farm chores, didn’t complain and did not openly communicate with other residents except to participate in recovery talks.
It was a working farm with livestock. My chores varied from shoveling cow manure to moving bales of hay. Keep in mind a small bale of hay weighs about 50 pounds. I was a scrawny 95 pound teenager. I was berated when I could not carry a bale of hay in each hand. Yes they expected me to carry more than my body weight in hay up a hill to the sheep pen. Logic had no meaning at this place.
Another aspect of farming was consuming the animals you tended to, that is a rough introduction for a city kid. Here are some rabbits to feed, don’t get too attached they are on the menu for Thursday’s dinner. It didn’t matter if you were a vegetarian, you ate what was on your plate. I heard stories of the FFS where kids who didn’t consume meats for religious reasons were forced. If they vomited the meat they were forced to eat that too. One former resident noted that she had a severe seafood allergy and was forced to eat fish. This resulted in her vomiting to the point of needing to be hospitalized. Her house leaders accused her of having bulimia and being overly dramatic. There was no limit to the soul crushing and physically damaging methods they used to break kids down.
Back to my experience, my indoor chores were also unpleasant. I was tasked with cleaning the bathrooms. Bathrooms used by 40 individuals that were instructed not to flush toilet paper because the septic system was fragile. It was as gross as your imagination permits and then some. We were permitted 3 minute showers on a rotating schedule. I was there in the winter so the frigid temperatures reduced our pungency. I imagine people stunk in August working on a farm with a shower every two days. Glad I missed that.
Some days a small group was sent to work at another community called East Ridge. This place was a cult. I don’t know what deal they worked out with the Argiros, but residents were taken there to work. When I was sent there it was to clean guest rooms or prepare food. I remember the specific task of juicing a liver for someone who had cancer. This place was holistic and did not permit pharmaceuticals, just natural healing methods. It was a religious community that believed all ills could be cured with the proper amount of faith. At least it was clean and spacious, which made it more appealing than the farm.
One of the more insidious aspects of the family was how they would get peers to turn on each other. This was a survival tactic. The best way to avoid the hot seat was to make sure someone else was in it. Residents would call each other out for perceived wrongs like, looking at someone of the opposite sex for a second too long or slacking off on chores. You were also expected to confess your sins at the dinner table. One time a guy confessed to having a wet dream about me the night before. I’m sure I was called a whore or a slut because of this, it would have been deemed my fault for enticing this guy. This was considered “normal” at this place. Tony liked to discuss masturbation any time of day or night. Meal time did not deter him, in fact, it incited him as he had a captive audience.
I’ve read testimonials of former residents who were coerced into confessing things they never did. Kids that were abstinent from sex or drugs were manipulated to make stuff up just to get by in the place. Then they would be ridiculed and tormented by their peers for confessing to things they never actually did. The whole thing was twisted. The fact that they branched out with multiple “houses” to run the school, sickens me. They expanded their evil empire and destroyed countless souls along the way. The current tally of known alumni that have died is at 93 right now. That is a lot of deaths for people under the age of 50, many were suicides.
When I was there, the population consisted of 5 females and 35 males. I was the youngest female there at age 15. The youngest male was 14 years old. A good chunk of the male occupants were adults that were there in lieu of prison. I trusted one person there, her name was Sandy. She was 17 and came from Monticello, New York. Sandy was a heroin addict which was fairly exotic back in the 80’s. We would talk in hushed whispers while the other girls we shared a room with slept late at night.
We commiserated about how awful the place was and how we could not wait to get out of there. At one point we came up with a plan, set the place on fire. Yup, we were so desperate that we wanted to burn the place down. We collected match heads and got our hands on some lighter fluid. Our plan was to place the lighter fluid in the oven with a bunch of match heads, turn on the oven and hope for an explosion. It didn’t work but it did give us some measure of hope for the week or so we planned it. Hope was a rare commodity in that place which was overflowing with despair and depravity.
I kept up my act of trudging through the daily grind to avoid confrontation. About a month into my stay, two counselors from my former rehab visited to check the place out. There weren’t a lot of options for teens in recovery then so they wanted to see if this place could be recommended for kids that needed additional treatment. They asked to speak with me and for some reason, Betty (Tony’s wife) let them.
We met in the family room which was on the same level as the dinning room and kitchen. It was a hub of activity there with plenty of people around during the impromptu visit. Eileen and Jim, the visiting counselors hugged me tight and asked me how I was. I held up as long as I could. It was so nice to see people that knew me in a different context. It was so overwhelming to be reminded that a world existed beyond that hellish farm and that there were people in the world that still gave a shit about me.
I tried to stay composed. The first few minutes I acted like the good robot that I had become. Telling them what the people within earshot would want them to hear. Lots of AA meetings, structured schedule, an honest day’s work…a few minutes in, I lost it. I started to sob in a way that could not be choked down and whispered into Eileen’s ear “do not send anyone here, it’s awful”. Before our meeting abruptly ended.
That night I was in the hot seat at dinner. I was confronted about my visit and how I broke down in front of outsiders. I thought a moment about making up some bullshit but decided against it. I confessed that I hated the place and didn’t think it was an appropriate place for me. Tony was angry, screaming, belittling me and saying how I would die if I left. I didn’t have a chance out in the real world. I got up without asking at which point Tony stood up and told me something I have never forgotten,”If you leave now, you’ll wind up sucking an old man’s cock on 42nd Street”. I said nothing, I went downstairs to get my boots and jacket.
I was followed downstairs by Tony, Betty and a small parade of residents just watching the shit show unravel. After more screaming and me not falling apart, they suggested that I wait to leave until the morning. I was after all a minor and that presented some concerns. I reluctantly agreed to postpone my departure and the rest of the night went on like nothing happened. Because crazy shit like this happened daily, it was considered normal.
Later that evening I had sheep watch. I gets so cold in the winter in Upstate New York that the pregnant animals need to be checked throughout the night. This is because their newborns could freeze if left out in the elements. So in addition to the daily morning and afternoon chores, we took turns checking the sheep and feeding wood to the stove that kept us warm. I came in from my 1am sheep watch shift and Sandy was up.
“Do you want to leave”, Sandy asked.
“Let’s go”, I replied.
Sandy quickly and quietly got dressed and once again, I went out through the back door. Since Sandy was from Monticello, that seemed like the most practical destination, a mere 50 miles away. It didn’t matter that it was the middle of the night in sub-zero temps, we walked for hours before the sun came up and we got to a highway. We were two minors hitch-hiking with no money on us. We got our break mid morning when a guy pulled over and offered to take us to Monticello.
We were driving with him for a while when a car passed us and our driver gave a friendly beep-beep. I noticed the car that was now in front of us had a bumper sticker,”This Too Shall Pass”. I recognized it as a slogan from AA. I flat out asked the guy if he was sober and he confirmed that he was in recovery. I can’t describe the relief I felt in that moment. We told him about the awful place we just ran from and he offered to take us back to get our belongings. And we did.
A couple of days after we ran away we went back to the family to collect our belongings. I marvel now at the bravado it took to do that. I went right up and knocked on the front door, demanding my things. It was probably stupid in retrospect, but it felt so good to claim my stuff. In doing so, I took back the parts of me they tried to steal.
Circling back to last night, I met someone on Facebook who also survived that miserable place. She was there for several months over the summer and fall of ’85. By that time they had moved the girls bedroom into a separate building for dorms. They still had the farm and set their sites on creating a school.
After enduring months of being malnourished, dehydrated and overworked physically, my new friend begged to leave. Tony and Betty lied to her stating that her mother made her a ward of the state and that they “owned” her. After two days in isolation they let her call her mother while secretly listening in. Her mother was told that her daughter wanted to leave to do drugs and the mother advised them to keep her. Then she begged to call her estranged father who said if she wants to leave and call someone drop her off somewhere and give her a quarter for the call. And that is what those sick fucks did. They drove her, a 16 year old girl, to the middle of nowhere with just the ragged clothes on her back and a quarter and let her go.
We are the exceptions. So many people didn’t survive that place or had their lives left in ruins over the damage done there and at the Family Foundation School. If you or someone you know is considering sending a teenager away to a camp or school that promises tough love and a good education, please do your research. So many of these places are riddled with abuse and the residents there can’t speak up or they will be punished severely. With that in mind, I will leave you a link with testimonies of the people that went to the Family Foundation School. That place was finally shut down in 2014 but many more still exist today.