For the sake of the story, my name is Crina. I came to AAG (which was what students called Asheville Academy for Girls) at 13. I came straight from Trails Carolina – another program which I could write an entirely separate entry. I came in enthusiastic about going to a school after those months in the freezing cold. It almost seemed like a paradise beforehand, especially considering the state of my home life. I find it ironic that I thought it would be paradise as the word paradise is derived from a Persian word meaning “walled garden.” That is similar to what AAG was except this garden was tended by children as young as 9, plants watered by tears and sweat.
I came in expecting healing, peace, a safe place far away from the troubles of the outside world as I was promised. I wish now that I was less naïve then. I wish I could tell little Crina to run as fast as they could away from there. The first few months I can only describe as cold, almost hazy. On my first day, I witnessed two girls get into a fight right in front of me while the staff did nothing to intervene. I also remember being thrilled to see two friends that I had known that I had met at Trails. One was on what was called “storming phase.” Her entire cabin was not allowed to speak to any other cabins, was forced into strange and unusual “team-building” activities – the details of these activities I can’t accurately describe.
They were allowed to give me one quick hug before staff commanded her to return to her cabin. On this first day, I was ripped away from my parents and I had to be 2 feet away from staff at all times despite having no history of dangerous behaviors. I spent that time toiling away scrubbing the dishes for the entire school.
It’s strange that I don’t recall much at all from those first few months. I remember that I was tethered to staff at almost all times with little to no communication with parents and no communication with my two little or sisters or grandparents. For context, I had been raised by my grandparents as my parents have proven themselves to be unstable. I wanted no contact with my parents.
We were all fed the same amount every day. Sometimes too much and at other times too little. The students (aka victims) were regarded as human trash cans. Food was just something to be disposed of. At 13 and nearing a growth spurt, I would resort to stealing food. My face and hands began to swell as my body held onto every calorie it could. I would like to say that this was not normal fat gain. My father is a very accomplished and skilled physician who can confirm that whatever happened was not normal. As a result, my clothes began to become too small. I was not allowed to purchase new clothes and had to wear ripped clothing. The few items that did fit, I had to wear constantly and they were, of course, filthy.
I am someone who values personal hygiene to a fault. I fear contamination – this is partially caused by trauma at Trails caused by the filthy living conditions. I pleaded with the staff to allow me to use the washing machine just two times a week or even once. They gave away my washing day because I was apparently “ungrateful for my nice clothes sitting in my closet.” It was mortifying. This humiliation was among the many factors that contributed to the development of my eating disorder. Of course, this is not the sole cause but I am not here to gather pity.
In the summer of that year, I earned home visits. I remember how my personality faded. The therapy at the school was less for support and more of an attack. If you are on this page, you are certainly familiar with the concept of attack therapy so I don’t feel the need to elaborate on that as it does bring back unwanted memories.
Needless to say, I began to mold myself into the version of Crina they wanted me to be. Imagine taking a beautiful statue, something akin to Venus de Milo, and breaking it down into nothing but a gray, ordinary pebble. That is what they did to us. I became an extension of the staff’s eyes – selling my friend’s secrets for signatures. Phasework was used in AAG. You had to progress through every phase to leave and the only way to progress was to have all of the staff signatures required. Obviously the staff would give signatures to their favorites. My actions disgust me to this day, but they saved me from punishment.
Around this time, I had a small wound on my arm. Because of my fear of contamination, I constantly scratched at a wound that I feard that under it the tissue was infected. As a result, it quickly became infected. It took weeks before the staff members allowed me to receive medical care. That one trip to the hospital was among the few times I left that isolated campus.
Everything was dirty there. The wood floor below the shower had completely rotted and was covered in black mold. The dishes and pans were covered in stains. I came into contact with both human and animal feces. The smell still stains my nostrils years afterward. The lake was filled with stagnant, putrid water. Once, when it was drained, a coffin was found. I cannot give you the origin of the said coffin.
On one occasion, when I was assigned to deep clean the bathrooms, I found human feces on almost all surfaces of the stall. Upon seeing that, I was in a state of shock. Despite being in extreme distress, I was forced to clean it. I will say that the staff I was with was exceptionally kind. Although she did make me clean all of the feces, she did support me through it all. The campus was disgusting. There is no other way to describe the state of it.
While I have repressed many of my memories of the place, I can give you details on the progression of my eating disorder. There is a picture of me on their Instagram that they posted without my consent. Having been in recovery for quiet some time, I look at it occasionally and it pains me to see the state I was in. I was sick and maybe even dying. My health was declining rapidly there. Yet, my dying, sick body is being used as their promotional material. This decline was ignored or even encouraged.
Every cry for help fell on deaf ears as I continued to kill myself. It’s disgusting. That smile, that strained grin, spread across my gaunt face was fake. My eyes were dead. My personality gone. My body was failing me. The sad truth is that so many of my peers developed eating disorders while there. They only acknowledged them once the parents could see their dying children and pressured the school about this neglect.
I remember what the phase work did to me. They convinced me if I didn’t do the program on their terms. If I didn’t make it to the final phase, I was a bad kid. I was broken. I was worthless. When I first entered the program, it was with a positive self-image. Of course, I was mildly depressed. I had always been an eccentric child but I left believing them. I went from being Crina to just being worthless. It’s etched into my thigh – a permanent reminder of what they see me as.
I remember how my mind decayed – how my sanity crumbled. You can only isolate a person for so long. Sanity has an expiration date, as do many things. I became paranoid, delusional. I was convinced that my peers would betray me as I had betrayed them. I forced myself into becoming a person I would never be.
I remember the day my steady downward climb became a sudden, quick fall. It was a cold day, winter. I was so close to going home – to freedom. My mother was pregnant at the time and a very dangerous pregnancy at that and I was desperate to get home to her and my new little sister. In my experience, no amount of abuse can take away the love one has for a sister and the respect one has for a mother. It was one conversation, a few short words, that led me to being place into complete and utter isolation. They took everything from me including the right to speak, my autonomy, and my cabin. I remember being at my lowest, my body starving and my mind breaking from the pressure. I remember the labor, the “therapy,” the animosity that brewed between me, the staff, and my peers. I was the bad kid.
That final straw was when I was informed that my mother was in the hospital and was bleeding out. I was not allowed to have more than 15 minutes with her on the phone. I never saw her during this time. God, I remember it so clearly. I remember the harsh words of my “therapist,” words almost too disgusting to repeat. I was a child at this time and my psyche destroyed while my mother was dying. She thankfully delivered the baby and recovered almost fully. The baby is 16 months old now and is growing into a beautiful little girl. I wasn’t allowed to meet my baby sister until she was almost 4 months old.
There is so much more to add about the school. All of the crimes and abuse that occur behind those walls of rhododendron keeping us victims trapped. They keep us trapped long after leaving. Years later, I wake up screaming remembering that damned place and all that happened there. I suffer extreme problems with socializing due to the isolation I faced and the paranoia that built up. While my weight is restored, the lasting effects of malnutrition still plague me.
Even now, I can’t bring myself to forgive my parents for sending me there. This place tears apart parents and children. These aren’t “troubled delinquents.” We were children. While I do agree sometimes intervention is needed, it never should cause more harm than good. I’m lucky I have recovered my mind, my stability, but even half a mind is more than most get.
To anyone at AAG, I hope you hear this. I hope you see this. I hope you remember what you did to me and what you did to all of us. While I can’t name every one of your crimes, while I can’t tell every story, I can tell the pieces of mine that I can still remember. The few memories I haven’t suppressed with medication. It’s becoming clearer now as I regain my mental facilities/ I may return to update this as I begin to remember. There are so many stories from this place, but I am not at liberty to tell them. AAG, remember what you did to us young, impressionable, lonely and scared children. Remember us and feel the same pain we feel. Mourn as we mourn for who we were before. Hate yourselves as we learned to hate ourselves. I pray for you to lose everything and have as much as we had taken. Remember us and weep. Remember us.