To be a celebrity is essentially to be a brand, whether or not you actually have one — and Paris Hilton oversees an entire empire. But the new documentary This Is Paris suggests that the public persona she's carefully crafted to be the face of this empire may be more of a defense mechanism than a true reflection of who she is. The film does make mention of her business acumen, but most of it is spent zooming in on the aftermath of the time she spent in one of a series of residential behavioral programs for teens.
Hilton appears to be vulnerable and open as she talks about the trauma she’s endured; even her voice is nearly unrecognizable, much deeper than the sugary-sweet tone the public has come to associate with her. Despite being a household name with wealth that most of us can’t imagine, her story is remarkably similar to that of other survivors of what’s often referred to as the "troubled teen industry" (TTI), a multi-billion dollar industry with little to no regulation, depending on the state. Among other things, the TTI in general has been accused of using deceptive marketing practices to bait desperate parents, and deploying inhumane methods of punishment, including long periods of solitary confinement. Hilton herself said in the documentary that she experienced solitary confinement in her time at Provo Canyon School (PCS) in Utah, the final school she was sent to at the age of 17. “I just wanted the public to know that this is bigger than me. This is all about the survivors and anyone who wants to share their truth,” she tells me. Since the September 14 release of the documentary, thousands of survivors have been inspired to share their own stories of institutional abuse on social media.
This was not the original plan for the documentary. About seven months into filming, Hilton opened up about her time at PCS to her director, Alexandra Dean. Though at first she was reluctant to include it in the final cut, she was eventually convinced that telling her story would make a big difference for other survivors. “I was always planning to take it to my grave, but instead I'm sharing it with the entire world,” she says. “I'm so happy that I actually listened to [Dean] because of the effect it's had on people who have survived either these schools or abusive relationships. The effect it's had on everyone has made it all worth it to me to have gone through all this and expose myself like this.”
The feeling of being exposed, like a raw nerve, has only been made more acute for some in their recollections of the particular type of abuse they say some of these places inflict upon teens. The schools themselves are all slightly different, but many students retell similar stories of being punished when they talked about what they experienced to parents or other outsiders, so self-preservational urges to reach out for help are frequently suppressed. “That was their way of manipulating the children into not saying anything ever, I think that's what they do to everyone. That's why we don't talk about it because you're trained in there, [if you say anything] you're going to get punished,” Hilton explains. This, as you might imagine, can create a cycle of self-silencing later on in life, or perpetual fear that something bad is going to happen when speaking out about the abuses suffered. I learned all of this firsthand as a teenager from my own experiences in a TTI program, as I recounted to BuzzFeed News in 2018. I still have nightmares of my time there; Hilton has similar nightmares. Thankfully, since opening up about her story and the airing of This Is Paris, she says hers have gotten a bit better.
The collective trauma of survivors
It is immensely difficult to find your footing and claim power later in life when you’ve had control stripped away during such a formative period. Those of us who do find the strength to speak out are often constantly looking over our shoulders, waiting for what seems like inevitable backlash. For those who may have been told day in and day out that they're bad people, responsible for every terrible thing that happens in their lives, it can seep into how they see themselves, but the reality is that it’s those who do it that bear that responsibility. “Now that there's a discussion about it, and people are talking about it all over the world, people are feeling proud of the fact that they're a survivor and they're not ashamed anymore. And they know that it's their shame and not ours,” Hilton affirms.
Survivors of the “troubled teen industry,” including Hilton, all share a collective trauma. There’s an understanding, a kinship, yet each person’s experience — and how we metabolize it — is unique. It’s life-altering, yet often, we don’t have the resources (or the time) to properly heal and process the trauma. So we simply absorb the shock, and the kinetic emotional energy has nowhere to go.
“It does something to you, especially being a teenager where you don't even have an identity yet. They try to strip it away and try to break you down as much as possible. And when I got out of there, I didn't realize that so many things about myself stemmed from there. Not being able to trust people, not letting people in and just feeling scared around people, not really having great social skills because you couldn’t even talk,” Hilton says.
In a September 17 statement made after the release of This is Paris on its website, PCS identified itself as a psychiatric residential treatment center, and its website says it has licensed staff like psychiatrists and nurses, but some TTI centers have been reported to not employ licensed teachers, therapists, or psychiatrists on staff.
Allure reached out to PCS for further comment, and the school shared with us its most recent media statements, which can be read in full on its website. In the aforementioned September 17 statement, PCS noted it “DOES NOT use ‘solitary confinement’ as a form of intervention.” And on October 9, PCS provided the following additional statement: “As previously stated, Provo Canyon School was sold by its previous ownership in August 2000. We therefore cannot comment on the operations or patient experience prior to that time. What we can say is that the school provides a structured environment teaching life-skills, providing behavioral health therapy, and continuing education for youth who come to us with pre-existing and complex emotional, behavioral and psychiatric needs. These youth have not been successful in typical home and school environments, and in many cases have a history of engaging in dangerous behaviors such as self-harming and/or attempting suicide, physical violence and/or aggression toward others, and use of illicit substances. While we acknowledge there are individuals over the many years who believe they were not helped by the program, we are heartened by the many stories former residents share about how their stay was a pivot point in improving — and in many cases, saving — their lives.”
What it takes to speak out
According to Rebecca Mellinger, the impact producer for This Is Paris, it’s common in the TTI for schools to change names or ownership without taking responsibility for past wrongdoings. However, it has not dissuaded Hilton from fighting. She is now working with Breaking Code Silence, a movement that’s working to raise awareness of the problems in the troubled teen industry and call for reform.
Jen Robison, the media lead of Breaking Code Silence and another former PCS student, believes the first step to creating change is to shed light on this problem and help survivors feel safe enough to speak out. If even someone with the resources of a Hilton is too traumatized to speak out about their experiences, imagine someone without the same means or platform. “It's been tremendously hard for real stories to come out and for people to talk about this, because the children who are sent away to these programs are often stigmatized and marginalized from the beginning. They don't believe that anybody sees them, hears them, or cares about them, so they don't think as much about reporting abuse or talking about it afterwards, because they're told to be quiet and that nobody's going to believe them,” she says.
There are plenty of reasons it’s hard to open up after leaving one of these places; many students are in precarious situations where their primary concern is simply staying out of the school. If a student is under the age of 18, according to Robison, they’re often put on what’s called a “home contract” that includes a list of agreed-upon rules, which, if broken, means they’ll end up back in the program. This is what Robison says happened to her. “I was there 2003 to 2005 with a little break in the middle there,” she says. She was home for about eight months before getting sent back.
So many of the thousands of stories shared by those who’ve been through the TTI throughout the country are so horrific that they can seem unbelievable. “To hear one individual story, it sounds like a movie, like this is something that somebody wrote a Handmaid's Tale novel about. It's easy for the public to hear one story and say, ‘Well, gosh, that sounds unbelievable,’ but when you have hundreds coming forward at the same time, saying pretty much the same thing, it tips the scales into, ‘Oh, this is real and something needs to be done,’” says Robison.
Those who do choose to speak out aren’t alone. There’s a whole network of support available, through Breaking Code Silence and other survivor networks, like Survivors of Institutional Abuse. “I want all of the other survivors to know that they're not alone. I think that anyone who does share their truth, they're really going to be blown away by all the love and support they’re going to receive from this community. I finally feel understood, and I am just so excited to make a huge impact and change this industry,” says Hilton.
But reopening these wounds can also be difficult, even if it’s important. When you’re dealing with things like PTSD, it’s common to have repressed memories come to light. Unwanted images may float back up to the surface and become more vivid as you speak out about your past. Though Mellinger is encouraged by the droves of survivors coming forward to share their experiences, she also acknowledges that it’s a hard thing to do. “We understand, obviously, that mental health assistance is critical for these communities and that's something we are very passionate about pursuing and making sure that there are trauma-informed specialists that can be available for them. As this movement brings up so much, we also recognize that it could bring up a lot of their past stories, and there's so much in the media now, so we want to make sure that they're well taken care of and that we're focusing our efforts on them,” she says.
Many survivors experience intense psychological trauma, and it can be extremely difficult to ask for help or work through the pain. For some, it’s impossible. “As adults, they do suffer from trauma and so many are not okay. I can't even count how many survivors I know of who have committed suicide or overdosed trying to escape from the pain of the trauma,” says Robison.
The fight ahead
There are a few politicians who are advocating for reform of the industry, including Representative Keri Ingle from Missouri and Senator Sara Gelser from Oregon, and Breaking Code Silence and Hilton are working with both of them. Mellinger says these legislators are leading the pack, and hopes others follow suit soon. After the release of the documentary, Hilton also launched a petition on change.org to shut down Provo Canyon School, which garnered 30,000 signatures on the very first day. “I think it just shows that this survivor community and just the community at large really is getting incredibly inspired to both speak out about their own experience or speak out against institutional abuse in these facilities, and so this collective energy to make change happen is just really powerful,” says Mellinger.
These schools still exist all over the country, despite decades of complaints against them. According to Mother Jones, many of the common techniques used in the industry can be traced to the late 1950s, and while a 2008 report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) even concluded in 2008 that there were myriad cases of abuse, deceptive marketing practices in residential programs for children and teenagers, there is still little oversight among these programs. It’s true that there’s a lot of momentum right now, but it may be a long battle. After all, these complaints have just finally started to be heard — this industry is highly profitable, and where there’s money to be made, perhaps there’s incentive to look away. Additionally, as ABC News noted in a 2011 report, many of these schools are privately operated with religious exemptions, which means that they can’t be interfered with by the state.
“It's mind-blowing to me that the GAO concluded that [some TTI programs had] negligent operating practices, among countless other issues — whether it's untrained staff, lack of adequate nourishment, lack of [adequate] equipment — led to child death cases, but reform never happened. What we're finding is that people have just said this straight up, that Paris is accelerating the movement and getting it into the public sphere,” says Mellinger. “We want to ban restraints and seclusion, we want to focus on youth rights that are taken away. We need to make sure the employees are certified and educated on appropriate responses to various behaviors.”
While she says there is so much more that needs to be done, Hilton seems buoyed by the prospect of a long road ahead. “I'm just going to keep fighting for more and more and I will not stop,” she tells Allure. The support of other survivors has fueled her for the fight.
“I think that's just such an exciting time to really make a difference, because I know that kids in the ‘troubled teen industry,’ they're not listened to — they're not believed. Now, they finally are going to be, and that is the best feeling in the world. When I was a little girl in there, I would be so proud of the woman I am today. I want this to be my legacy,” she says.
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