The Cult That Promises to Cure Addiction

For 50 years, Enthusiastic Sobriety programs have offered to help teenagers kick drugs and alcohol. But former followers say ES doesn’t save lives—it destroys them.

This is an excerpt from The Atavist‘s issue no. 115, “The Love Bomb,” by Daniel Kolitz.

Daniel Kolitz| The Atavist | July 2021 | 10 minutes (2,100 words)

Prologue

On Super Bowl Sunday, three weeks into the 1980s, Dave Cherry had the house to himself. The 15-year-old was sprawled out on his parents’ gold bedspread watching the game, but on the list of things he cared about—Led Zeppelin, the possibility of alternate dimensions, acquiring and inhaling tremendous quantities of weed—football barely ranked. Inertia, a sense of having nothing better to do, was the only thing that kept him watching.

When the game ended, the network cut to Dan Rather, his posture as rigid as his hair. Rather introduced the subject of that week’s 60 Minutes episode: the Palmer Drug Abuse Program. “Few people outside of Texas had ever heard of PDAP,” Rather intoned, “until People magazine reported that Carrie Hamilton, the 15-year-old daughter of TV star Carol Burnett and producer Joe Hamilton, had become a drug addict, and that her parents had sent Carrie to PDAP, where she kicked her habit.”

Cherry, who lived in the suburbs of St. Louis, wasn’t familiar with PDAP, nor with Carrie Hamilton’s recovery, despite Burnett and her family making the daytime talk-show rounds—Dinah Shore, Phil Donahue—to praise the program and its founder, a recovering addict and alcoholic named Bob Meehan. “Some see Mr. Meehan as a miracle worker,” Rather said, “bringing God and clean living back into young people’s lives. Others say he gets those youngsters dependent on him and PDAP in place of their former dependence on drugs and alcohol.”

Meehan appeared on screen, looking like someone’s hazy misconception of 1970s cool: wide white sideburns, bushy blond goatee. Fury seemed to flash behind his orange-tinted aviators. Cherry, the son of strict Southern Baptists, was suddenly interested. Meehan was precisely the kind of guy his parents would despise.

“Now, I’m saying, this program works for a group of people. If it doesn’t work for you, try another one!” Meehan told 60 Minutes. “We’re not controlling you in any way, shape, or form. You don’t like it, leave!”

Meehan called his method of treating substance abuse Enthusiastic Sobriety, or ES. It was a kind of Alcoholics Anonymous for teenagers; it emphasized community and spirituality, but also insisted that participants needed to have fun. Cherry watched footage of cozy group confessionals and larger meetings that looked like pep rallies. Kids traded shoulder squeezes and looks of fervent understanding. A pretty woman, maybe 20 years old, cradled a younger boy’s head as another woman thanked him for filling a void in her life. “I love you,” she said, prompting claps and cheers from the people gathered around her.

A lonely kid, Cherry felt a stir of longing.

Meehan was so animated that, beside him, Rather looked like an expensive wax statue. When Rather questioned him about his $100,000 annual income, a combination of his PDAP salary and payments from a company that ran hospitals where PDAP referred teenagers for inpatient treatment, Meehan grinned. “If I wasn’t making money, you wouldn’t be here today, partner!” he said. Pressed for evidence of the high success rates PDAP touted in its advertisements, Meehan delivered a wandering monologue on the perils of methadone and the definition of success before telling Rather that if 60 Minutes or its host would like to give him $75,000 to conduct a study, he’d be happy to take it.

“Are you saying to me that you don’t have any data to back up your claim that you’re 75 to 80 percent successful?” Rather asked.

“The data we have is quite different from data anybody else has,” Meehan said.

“But when you boil it down, what you’ve got is a guess,” Rather pressed.

“Oh definitely,” Meehan said, inscrutable. “Definitely a guess.”

Rather presented dissenting opinions, from sources who described an environment that seemed designed to keep PDAP participants in thrall to Meehan. A mustached man in a tan leather jacket said that people were being “led to believe that we can’t make it without the program,” prompting Rather to remark, astonished, that this would make participation “never-ending.” Confronted with the notion that PDAP was manipulative and opportunistic, Meehan became even more energetic. “I’ve been a con all my life,” he told Rather. “Just, now I’m using it in a good way, see?”

The segment was in no uncertain terms a takedown. It aired on the highest-rated news program in the country, directly after the biggest event on TV. It should have been Bob Meehan’s undoing. But it wasn’t.

Over the next 40 years, Meehan proved to be a skilled shapeshifter and profiteer. Enthusiastic Sobriety, which as it turned out was even more destructive than 60 Minutes revealed, spread well beyond PDAP. It evolved, taking various names and forms; when one door closed, Meehan found another to open. Recovery programs that he ran or wielded influence over enrolled thousands of young people across the United States. Today, ES outfits run by members of Meehan’s inner circle still exist in Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Missouri, and North Carolina.

ES also ensnared staff and some clients in what people who’ve abandoned it now call a cult. Meehan and his closest confidants—a group dubbed the Family—controlled every aspect of members’ lives. The story recounted here draws on interviews with 65 former clients, counselors, and loved ones of people involved with ES from its origins in the 1970s through to the present day. Their experiences echo those described in an active online community of former ES followers, who use Facebook and other social-media platforms to tell their stories. Some subjects spoke to The Atavist Magazine on condition of anonymity.

Flopped on his parents’ bed in 1980, Dave Cherry couldn’t have guessed the outsize role he’d one day play in ES, or the extent to which Meehan would come to dominate his life. Years would pass before the two even met. All Cherry knew on that Super Bowl Sunday was that he liked the guy. He thought Dan Rather had given Bob Meehan a raw deal.

***

Part One

Hard facts about Meehan’s life before PDAP are scarce, but he always told a compelling origin story—how he first shot heroin at 16; how the habit soon compelled him to pawn his parents’ furniture; how they committed him to a psychiatric ward; how he escaped and spent the next ten years on and off the streets, using not only heroin but also codeine, quaaludes, cocaine, speed, and alcohol. During this period, according to several people who knew Meehan, he claimed to have robbed several pharmacies, killed several men, and played drums in several small-time jazz ensembles.

In Meehan’s telling, his luck changed in 1971. Released from a Kentucky prison cell, he wound up in Houston, digging ditches for Rice University. At 27, he was mostly toothless—he wore dentures—and bald, save for a grimy curtain of hair running from the peak of his scalp down to his shoulders. A Fu Manchu mustache drooped past his chin. He’d mostly stopped using drugs but still wrestled with booze, and after another short stint in jail, this time for burglary and public drunkenness, he began attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings at Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church.

The gatherings were presided over by Father Charles Wyatt-Brown, a soft-spoken priest beloved by his community. Wyatt-Brown took a liking to Meehan, who was outspoken in meetings. The two began having lunch together. Wyatt-Brown soon hired Meehan as his church’s janitor.

Teens made regular use of the church in those days, playing Frisbee on the grounds and popping inside to use the bathroom. Some of them were drug users, and Wyatt-Brown encouraged Meehan to befriend them, hoping he might set them on a better path. In fact, Wyatt-Brown said, Meehan’s attention was better spent helping children than vacuuming hallways.

Meehan was singularly charismatic, a perpetual motion machine with a comic’s timing and a gift for connecting with kids. It helped that he chain-smoked, cursed incessantly, and had a vast supply of dirty jokes and prison yarns to keep them entertained. Soon, with Wyatt-Brown’s permission, six young people began meeting regularly with Meehan in the church’s basement. They played cards, complained about teachers, talked about crushes. Sometimes Meehan took to the piano, leading sing-alongs. Within six months, the group’s ranks had expanded to 40, and Meehan was formally promoted to the role of youth counselor. Another six months later, attendance had reached 250, and Wyatt-Brown established the Palmer Drug Abuse Program as a nonprofit, with a board of directors to facilitate the program’s growth. Meehan was made director.

Meehan didn’t have formal qualifications to run a drug-treatment program. What he had was life experience and an eye for demand. White middle-class Americans shaped by the promise and comforts of the postwar era were terrified that substance abuse would steal their children’s future. The war on drugs began in 1971, with Richard Nixon declaring illegal substances “public enemy number one.” Within a few years, the so-called parent movement, which preached zero tolerance of marijuana, narcotics, and alcohol, would spread across the country. But Meehan recognized that a top-down approach wasn’t likely to appeal to kids. What rebellious teenager does what their parents or president tells them to do?

Meehan started developing Enthusiastic Sobriety, which was both a theory and a practice. In order to entice teens, he believed, clean living needed to be just as fun—and just as reckless—as the alternative. If teens wanted to grow their hair long, smoke cigarettes, stay out all night, or even drop out of school, parents should let them—whatever kept them off drugs and alcohol was a good thing. Thus liberated, kids could enter the alternate social world of PDAP, which had its own dances, campouts, and house parties, all of them substance-free.

Spirituality was part of PDAP’s deal; much like AA, the program was rooted in the possibility of redemption. If that didn’t seem cool to teenagers, Meehan would be the first to tell them they were wrong. He believed that peer pressure was what drove young people to experiment with drugs and alcohol, and he aimed to use the same tactic to keep them sober. As soon as they walked in the door of a meeting, PDAP newcomers were smothered in hugs and people saying “I love you.” The tactic, called “love bombing,” is now widely recognized as a method for luring people into cults. One PDAP participant recalled thinking, “These guys are like the Hare Krishna or something. They’re going to try to make me sell flowers at the airport next week.”

In the program’s early days, Meehan met and married Joy DeFord, a diminutive, dark-haired divorcée who ran Palmer Memorial’s Alateen program, for teenagers who had alcoholics in their families. Joy came across as a polished Southern belle, a calm counterpoint to her manic husband, though she had quirks of her own, including an interest in hypnotism and homeopathy. The Meehans had a daughter and informally adopted a PDAP participant named Susan Lowry. Joy began running PDAP’s parent group, which held meetings each week. Hers was an essential role—PDAP’s smooth functioning depended on parents buying into the developing ES methodology.

PDAP could be a tough sell for parents. Beyond the smoking and the late nights, there was the fact that PDAP’s counselors looked like they could have been former drug dealers. Some of them were former drug dealers. One young man showed up for his first PDAP meeting, struck up a conversation with a counselor, and quickly realized that he’d “bought dope from the guy before.” When the adults balked about who was supervising their kids, Joy calmed them down. A common refrain was “Would you rather they were dead?”

PDAP was free, funded entirely by community donations. Participants had to commit to 30 days of sobriety, during which they would attend frequent meetings. They could keep coming to PDAP after that—in fact, they were encouraged to make the program the permanent anchor of their existence. Meehan, a fervent follower of AA, implemented a version of the 12 steps in PDAP. Participants made moral inventories and direct amends to those they’d hurt, and they admitted that substances rendered their lives unmanageable. Meehan put his own spin on other steps. His second one was “We have found it necessary to ‘stick with winners’ in order to grow.” To keep old friends around—especially if they used drugs or alcohol, but often even if they were sober—was to court relapse or worse. Once someone had PDAP, they didn’t need anyone else. In the words of one former participant, PDAP was “a whole group of people who were just like me.”

Read the full story at The Atavist

If you or someone you know is struggling with substance abuse, resources are available from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, including a 24/7 national helpline: 1-800-662-HELP (4357). Additional information on rehab abuse is available via Breaking Code Silence.