HE PROGRAM: CONS, CULTS & KIDNAPPING AND A PERSONAL MEMORY – April 2024

By Judy Garrison

There are a couple of people close to me wondering about my extreme fascination with cults and the cult-like (having read my piece in the March issue).

Whether or not this preoccupation on my part portends a disturbing pattern, I wish to share my recommendation for a 3-part mini-series uploaded to Netflix on March 5th. I viewed it on the evening of March 8th. This was a day after my book group’s discussion of Jennifer Egan’s The Candy House, which creates a science-fiction-y world of the present and near future where a cult has grown up over new technology that allows people’s consciousnesses and memories to be uploaded and shared. The objectors to this technology growing pervasive in the culture are dubbed “eluders.” We decided we were all eluders. Again I was primed to rebel in spirit against cultish behavior, in this instance fictional.

  The series is The Program. It is a personal project of Katherine Kubler who about 20 years ago was snatched at her father’s direction from her boarding school and taken to The Academy at Ivy Ridge in Ogdensburg, New York where she was held a virtual prisoner for many months. She suffered extreme psychological trauma, strands of which persist to this day. Through social media she was able to connect with cohorts who had likewise suffered abuse, some of it physical and sexual. (As students they were forbidden to talk to each other, even to make eye contact.) They discovered a remarkable trove of evidence in one of the abandoned buildings of the facility: virtually all the files and videos from their time there. Together they systematically organized and categorized the information, much of which substantiated the lies they were forced to mouth in order to progress through the program, a moving up that was required for a release they were desperate to attain.

I strongly recommend watching to the end. The group’s decision to follow the money allows them to complete the trail of responsibility; it also offers up an agenda for public officials to scrutinize.

And, what to my surprise! On Saturday, March 9th I spotted a news item on Spectrum: “A North Country Assemblyman Friday calls on the New York Attorney General to launch an investigation into accusation of abuse at the former Academy at Ivy Ridge in Ogdensburg. The allegations are being made by those who attended the Academy which closed in 2009.” He had met Katherine and, at her advice, must have watched the series this week. A case will be brought!

The scene where the former students entered the abandoned buildings and dug through a huge number of a documents and videos evoked a memory of my own.

At the age of 13 I had attended a girls camp near Corinth in the Adirondacks. I wondered at, though didn’t suffer from, the enforced absence of boys  although was used to coeducation (the one boy we saw the entire summer—the stable boy—was deliberately chosen, we were sure, for his deformities). That summer I participated in all the required activities: swimming the width of the lake; rising at 5 to reveille every morning in my primitive tent to engage in chores, such as lining the tennis courts in chalk; playing softball every afternoon; singing around the campfire; currying and riding the horses; going on overnight hikes. Much of it was enjoyable. I also starred in “Babes in Toyland,” which we put on for the community and, played piano in the talent show. However, I wasn’t happy with my placement with 2 immature tentmates who continually annoyed me and with whom I was expected to buddy in all activities. I mentioned my unhappiness in postcards home, never expecting to leave camp but needing to vent. The camp management told me they’d read my mail and subsequently focused on me as a miscreant; the director shamed me in front of the assembled campers, declaring she’d make certain I never entered Skidmore, where the 70-ish woman was director of admissions. This was after publicly announcing I, the one most needing it, was the only camper who failed to go to confession when we Catholics went to church in town. What she’d expected me to confess I had no idea as I never once failed to participate in an activity or complained aloud about anything. I’d even taught the other campers to play duets on the piano.

Sometime in the late ‘90s a friend and I found ourselves in Corinth and I decided to ask in the diner if anyone knew anything about Camp Mesacosa. “Oh, the old girls camp! It closed years ago.” The man directed us to the place in the road where the half-mile footpath began. Some pleasant memories of walking and hiking in those woods came back to me as I breathed in the redolent pine forest aroma, not knowing for sure what, if anything, we would find.at the end of the trail.

And then, there it was!!: the lake, the abandoned, decaying dining hall, the old chinning bar, the weathered stable and staff cabins. In the largest cottage I was amazed to discover a treasure trove of folders, logbooks and photos: everything about the camp and its campers from the1930s through the1960s. Documentation for the lovely traditions of canoe regattas and corn roasts around the campfire, awards for those who excelled in activities, as well as lists of all the rules, such as no candy or radios, and of those who infringed on those rules. Oh, yes! I suddenly remembered. My mother had brought candy on Parents’ Day. I had distributed it to my tentmates. Maybe that was my infraction. I left everything as it was.~