The Love Bomb

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

By Daniel Kolitz

The Atavist Magazine, No. 117

Daniel Kolitz is a writer in Brooklyn. He has contributed to The New York Times Magazine, The New Republic, The Atlantic, and The Nation, among other publications.

Editor: Jonah Ogles
Art Director: Ed Johnson
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Fact Checker: Naomi Sharp
Photographer: Benjamin Rasmussen

Published in July 2021.


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.

Above: Dave Cherry in July 2021.

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.”

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.

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.

Above: Bob Meehan on “60 Minutes,” along with transcripts from the segment, and the issue of “People” magazine with Carol Burnett and her daughter touting ES.

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.”

PDAP became so popular among local teens that some faked or exaggerated drug problems to get in the door. Not everyone who joined was even a teenager. The ages of PDAP participants ranged from 13 to 25. Minors were part of what was called Younger Group, and those 18 or above were in Older Group. (Some participants were over 25, and a few were in their thirties; they were known as Over the Hillers.) Many of the joiners were misfits, young people with growing rap sheets or a hostile stance toward authority—what their parents might call a bad attitude. Some had sought treatment for substance abuse before but felt patronized by medical professionals.

PDAP meetings were serious business. An atmosphere of total transparency prevailed: Participants shared stories of sexual assault, domestic violence, and intravenous overdose. Some of the most vulnerable exchanges occurred at Round Robins, where participants were kept awake all night, divulging deep secrets in a state of sleep deprivation. Sponsors and counselors dispensed advice to newcomers on how to dress and whom to socialize or sleep with. For many in the program, their guidance was gospel. “They always told you God spoke through other people, and you needed to listen to your sponsor,” a former participant recalled, “because God is speaking through them.”

Kids who adhered most strictly to the ES ethos—who stayed sober, avoided people outside PDAP, obeyed staff, and stuck with the program long-term—were elevated to the prestigious steering committee, which helped guide meetings. From there, many became counselors themselves. Acolytes believed that the program had saved their lives. Soon they were spreading the word across Texas and beyond. Counselors traveled to other states, praised Meehan and the ES method at town halls, and raised funds to open new chapters of PDAP in local churches. “We all worked for next to nothing,” a counselor from the early days said. “We were in it for the love of the job.”

Even Meehan didn’t earn much money at first. His house and furniture were in disrepair; his old Ford barely worked. Then he went into business with a man named Fred Kotzen, who managed a handful of Houston-area hospitals. In the past, when PDAP kids required more serious drug treatment, Meehan had sent them Kotzen’s way. In 1975, Kotzen offered Meehan a hefty consultant’s fee—$50,000 a year, as Dan Rather would later report, or about $250,000 in 2021 dollars—to more formally integrate PDAP with his business. (On 60 Minutes, Meehan insisted that he was paid solely to give Kotzen advice. Kotzen passed away in 2014.)

Kotzen opened PDAP wings at his hospitals, where parents—or their insurance companies—paid to send young people for inpatient care. While nurses and doctors were present and signed off on paperwork, the wings were primarily staffed by Meehan’s counselors. According to one source, Kotzen soon began paying directors of PDAP chapters in other cities to funnel kids into his Houston hospitals. Counselors felt pressured to fill the wings. “They started urging us to put kids in the hospital programs,” a former counselor said. “These are 14-year-olds who are smoking pot. They don’t need to go to the hospital. They’re not shooting heroin.”

This was the first iteration of a business model that would serve as the backbone of Meehan’s operations for the next half-century. Kotzen’s hospitals made money off the kids referred from PDAP, and the fees Kotzen paid to Meehan helped PDAP grow. “We were able to expand throughout the country very quickly,” a former counselor recalled. According to 60 Minutes and another source familiar with the program, PDAP wings at various Houston hospitals were, at their peak, treating somewhere between 450 and 600 patients at a time.

“They started urging us to put kids in the hospital programs,” a former counselor said. “These are 14-year-olds who are smoking pot. They don’t need to go to the hospital. They’re not shooting heroin.”

A 1978 Associated Press profile described Meehan as the “Pied Piper of Houston, leading a parade of drug abusers in search for a place in the sun.” Soon after, Carol Burnett sent her daughter to PDAP. Meehan personally oversaw her experience with the program, and his efforts paid off. Hamilton sobered up in one of PDAP’s hospital wings and began attending meetings. Meehan earned the loyalty of her mother, one of the most visible women in the country. “My parents believed this person was a godsend,” said Jody Hamilton, Carrie’s sister. “He saved their daughter’s life.” (Carrie Hamilton passed away in 2002, at the age of 38, of complications from lung cancer. Burnett declined to comment for this story.)

A caravan of counselors led by Meehan eventually took a trip to Los Angeles, hoping to enlist the troubled children of other Hollywood elite into his program. They made use of Burnett’s mansion while getting PDAP L.A. off the ground. Two counselors were even married on Burnett’s tennis court.

At the time, celebrities rarely spoke openly about substance abuse in their families. Burnett broke the mold: There was the story in People, followed by numerous talk-show appearances. The effect on PDAP was immediate. “Man, people were dropping out of airplanes into Houston!” a former counselor said. “Every parent across the country that saw her on television with her daughter was going, ‘Well, I got one of those. I’m calling them up.’ And the counselors in Texas would just go, ‘Send them down! We’ll try to help them!’” To accommodate the influx, new arrivals who didn’t go straight to Kotzen’s hospitals were taken in by families with children in PDAP.

The explosive growth—and lucrative hospital arrangements—allowed Meehan to swap his rundown Ford for a luxury Lincoln. According to colleagues from that time, he took to wearing ostrich-skin cowboy boots, thousand-dollar suits, and gold jewelry. One former PDAP counselor recalled him claiming that, if given the chance, his Enthusiastic Sobriety method could bring peace to the Middle East. When 60 Minutes began reporting on PDAP, it was the messianic version of Meehan that the show caught on tape.

Acolytes around the country gathered to watch the news segment on Super Bowl Sunday. Everyone assumed that it would glorify Meehan and the ES method. Initially, the show had planned to do exactly that: An early memo written by a producer described PDAP as a force for good and Meehan as “ebullient, funny, caring.” But during the reporting process, that view changed considerably. In a later memo, the same producer wrote, “All the people I’ve talked with who have left the Palmer Drug Abuse Program agree on two things: that Bob Meehan is a superb con man, and that he’s dangerously unstable—‘a fanatic, a psychopath.’”

PDAP’s most dedicated supporters lived in a bubble; for them the program was self-evidently righteous. They dismissed criticism from former Meehan followers as the sour grapes of people who couldn’t hack it. More often they didn’t come in contact with those opinions at all. People who divorced themselves from PDAP were systematically shunned by friends and colleagues who were still in the program. So the tone of the 60 Minutes segment came as a surprise. “We just sat there in total shock,” a former PDAP staff member recalled. Another, who watched it in Los Angeles, could think only one thing: “We are going down.”

PDAP’s board of directors was livid about the segment’s revelations. They wanted accountability. But rather than apologize or agree to look for possible problems, Meehan turned combative. He insisted that footage had been edited to make him look bad, and that old colleagues were out to ruin him. Paranoid, he hired a security detail.

He also started a band, called Freeway, whose songs centered exclusively on the joys of sobriety. Its first and only album was produced by ZZ Top’s Frank Beard, whom Meehan had helped get off heroin. “Bob wanted to be a rock star,” a former colleague said. Meehan booked Freeway at the Houston Astrodome and rented a private plane to fly PDAP participants in from Los Angeles to attend. Carrie Hamilton, an aspiring singer, was the opener. One staff member recalls Meehan and his entourage arriving in limousines. According to several former colleagues, Meehan funded the event by clearing out the bank account of PDAP L.A.—an estimated $50,000 to $100,000 in charitable donations. After the Houston show, Meehan took Freeway on tour through the Rocky Mountains, playing at various PDAP branches. That trip was also allegedly bankrolled with the program’s money.

Meanwhile, the bad publicity from 60 Minutes was making new fundraising difficult. According to one PDAP higher-up at the time, presentations at Rotary and Kiwanis Club meetings, once filled with questions about how PDAP might be able to help a troubled nephew or daughter, were now dominated by concerns over Meehan’s character. Was what they said on TV true? Why should parents trust him?

The situation grew increasingly tenuous. At a heated three-day PDAP board meeting in late 1980, nearly a year after the 60 Minutes segment aired, Meehan was booted from the organization.

After the 60 Minutes segment aired, a former PDAP staff member recalled, “We just sat there in total shock.” Another, who watched it in Los Angeles, could think only one thing: “We are going down.”

In the fall of 1982, Dave Cherry arrived for his freshman year at Webster College, outside St. Louis. Depressed from a recent breakup and self-medicating with weed, he promptly failed all his classes. Webster kicked him out after five months and Cherry moved back home. He spent his days on one knee, fitting pumps on women’s feet at one of his father’s strip-mall shoe stores. He thought his parents pitied him, which he hated. In the evenings, he hung out with friends at a nearby lake, where they passed a bong around and came up with stupid songs. “It’s hard to even express what a miserable-feeling human being I was at that time,” Cherry said.

One night he got a call from a friend’s mother. “John’s been sick,” she said—that was code for “drinking again.” John, who’d recently been through rehab, needed to go to an AA meeting that evening, but his mother couldn’t drive him. She asked if Cherry would take him. Cherry’s parents had confiscated his car keys—“I kept getting in wrecks,” he said—but he’d secretly made a copy, and his parents weren’t home. He said yes.

When Cherry and John arrived at the meeting, they found it filled with grizzled bikers and hippies, the kinds of people Cherry’s mother reflexively sneered at. But just like she did, they professed an abiding faith in God. Listening to their stories, Cherry sensed a common denominator: These people had been lost right up until the moment they accepted their disease. He felt lost as well. To his surprise, Cherry found himself speaking. “I think I’m an addict,” he told the room. If Cherry had any doubts about the truth of this statement—he drank and smoked, but no more than many of his peers—they were swept away by the applause that followed his confession.

His dad was waiting in the driveway, arms crossed, when Cherry pulled in later that night. Before his father could say a word, Cherry blurted out that he had a drug problem and needed to go to rehab. Within 48 hours, the doors of Weldon Spring Psychiatric Hospital closed behind him.

Barely an hour had passed before a 16-year-old girl—tan, blond, and blue-eyed—strode up to him and complimented his earring. Her name was Melissa; she was brazen, voluble, a whirl of hand gestures and blunt remarks. The two became inseparable. One night, Cherry connected two Dixie cups with string and snuck across the hall to hand one to Melissa so they could “talk” all night. Before Melissa left the hospital—her release date was a few weeks earlier than Cherry’s—the counselors staged a mock wedding for them. They used scraps of leather for rings.

One day, on temporary leave from the facility, Cherry drove by a fundraiser where several pretty girls his age were washing cars in bikinis. They were raising money, he learned, for the St. Louis branch of PDAP. He remembered the name from 60 Minutes. When he told them he was sober, he was promptly love bombed, a process to which sex appeal was central. Multiple former ES leaders said that they consciously recruited attractive, popular teens, who in turn would entice more teens.

The show of affection had its intended effect. Cherry wanted to feel like he belonged somewhere. After he was released from the psychiatric hospital, he and Melissa became regulars at PDAP meetings.

Since Meehan’s ouster, PDAP had instituted a more professional, evidence-based approach to teen sobriety. But the efforts at reform hadn’t been entirely successful. Many Meehan acolytes remained on staff at PDAP branches or had taken leadership roles since he was fired. According to Cherry, the director of PDAP St. Louis, talked about Meehan as if he were “almost a God.”

Cherry had left the hospital with a newfound sense of purpose—he wanted to help people who felt as bad as he once did. PDAP was the ideal outlet. Weaving parables and jokes through his life story, Cherry could light up a room. Soon, local church ministers were calling him for help with troubled teens, and he began carting aspiring teetotalers to PDAP meetings. He was added to the branch’s steering committee, and then became a staff member.

Not long after, PDAP St. Louis reached a crisis point when two directors quit in quick succession. The higher-ups in Houston seemed willing to let the branch wither, but one person was willing to step in: Bob Meehan.

From a new home base in San Diego, Meehan had recently started another program through which to apply the ES method. He’d named it after his band. Freeway was established with funds donated by actor Tim Conway, whose son Meehan had treated; like PDAP, it was overseen by a board of directors whose local prominence and connections brought legitimacy—and fundraising opportunities—to the organization. By 1983, some 500 young adults were in regular attendance at Freeway meetings. But whereas in Houston Meehan had referred clients to hospitals for a fee, in San Diego he cut out the middleman: Freeway participants whom staff deemed in need of something more than counseling and community were sent to the Sober Live-In Center, or SLIC, a crumbling, rented compound outside Escondido also known as the Ranch. A 30-day stay cost upwards of $5,000, according to several people involved at the time.

When Meehan caught wind of the problems in St. Louis, he saw another opportunity. He quickly persuaded the board there to split from PDAP. When Meehan flew to town to for the formal announcement, Cherry was dispatched by his father, who sat on the St. Louis branch’s board, to pick him up from the airport. Meehan was waiting in a blazer and a dress shirt with the top few buttons undone. He wore a gold chain with a heart-shaped pendant, initialed with an S and an R for “SLIC Ranch.”

Cherry was starstruck. He chattered incessantly all the way to the PDAP office. There, Meehan was the one who did the talking. Holding forth to the threadbare group of participants and volunteers who constituted the program at that point, Meehan was on fire; antic and foulmouthed, he preached the ES gospel like it was a stand-up routine. “Have you ever tried to PISS before you CRAP?” he asked—references to the ES concepts of Properly Interpreting Social Situations and using Communication to Resolve All Problems.

As his talk wound down, Meehan discussed business. St. Louis, he announced, would no longer be affiliated with PDAP. He would now be in charge, running operations from San Diego. The day-to-day work of the program, which soon changed its name to Crossroads, would be overseen by a man named Frank Szachta, who had gotten sober at the St. Louis branch and would soon move home to take the job. In the meantime, Dave Cherry would run the show.

Cherry, who learned this at the same time everyone else in the room did; Cherry, who was barely out of his teens. Meehan didn’t ask him if he wanted the job, but he didn’t have to: Cherry was willing to help however he could.

When Cherry drove Meehan to his hotel, Meehan asked him inside to talk. They munched on Tastykakes and tortilla chips slathered with Easy Cheese in the dim light of Meehan’s room. According to Cherry, Meehan opened up about 60 Minutes—he said that he’d played cards with the cameramen, that he’d been sure the show would portray him positively, but that when you’d treated as many kids as he had, some were bound to end up bitter about one thing or another.

Meehan then invited Cherry to join him on the floor. They sat cross-legged facing one another, their knees nearly touching. Meehan told Cherry that he knew him better than Cherry knew himself. That he loved him more than Cherry loved himself. All the things Cherry had done to himself—flunking out of school, wrecking his life with drugs—Meehan would never have done to him. Try to run your own life, Meehan said, and you’ll just get hurt; turn it over to God and you’ll never be hurt again.

He asked Cherry to look into his eyes, to see the love that he had for him. Cherry complied. After five or six minutes Cherry began sobbing uncontrollably, but he didn’t look away. Meehan tilted his head. “I really get you, man,” Cherry remembered him saying. “I really get you.”

When Cherry left, the sun was coming up. He cried all the way home. Meehan, he knew, was going to save the St. Louis program. More than that, Meehan was going to save him.

Part Two

Unbeknownst to Cherry, at the time of his visit, Meehan’s latest venture was on the brink of collapse.

Above: Meehan with images of his book and the cover and song list of an album by his band Freeway.

The Ranch in California was the rehab equivalent of a roach motel. It was spread over several sites, and, according to people who spent time in them, the facilities were infested. Upwards of 20 clients at a time, some as young as 12 or 13, slept on mattresses scattered on the floor or in a mildewed trailer. The Ranch’s counselors lacked even basic credentials. According to Jenny Gaines, who went through treatment at the Ranch twice, clients knew to hide if they heard a knock at the door, “because it could be licensing [officials], and we had to protect Bob.”

Most of the staff weren’t equipped to handle teens in genuine medical distress. Gaines remembered a girl who arrived catatonic after a bad acid trip. “She couldn’t talk, she couldn’t clean herself,” Gaines said. The other young women in residence bathed and fed her for the duration of her stay. Meehan, who dropped by regularly to “connect” with the clients, told them to pray for the girl.

Before long, aggrieved parents who didn’t like the way their kids had been treated found one another and rallied the press to their cause. Meehan, they said, had convinced them that their children would die unless they got help from the Ranch. Terrified, they’d emptied savings accounts and taken out second mortgages. Many now found that their children refused to speak to them, citing the tenets of ES. Meehan “wanted to get them away from their family,” said Don Ceplenski, who has two children who spent time at the Ranch. “The girls were like Manson girls—really, really loyal. Meehan convinces them he’s saved their life, that their families and society really screwed them up.”

Freeway, the ES program through which kids were funneled to the Ranch, was likewise under attack. It was accused, as the Los Angeles Times reported, of leading its members to exchange “one addiction—to drugs and alcohol—with another addiction—to a lifestyle of self-gratifying antisocial behaviors, dependency on one another at the expense of their home life, and a cult-like adoration of Meehan as the most important person in their life.” As with PDAP, many Freeway acolytes seemed to believe that they would die without the program.

The criticism grew so intense that Freeway’s board of directors voted to disband the program. Not long after, a former executive director claimed that the program had sent clients to the Ranch whether they needed treatment or not, and the San Diego district attorney opened an investigation. “These are stupid accusations,” Meehan told the Los Angeles Times. “People want to blame me because their families aren’t working right. I’m a good man, a reputable man.” Soon the Ranch was also under investigation for housing minors without a license. Meehan, while conceding that some of the center’s clients were under 18, insisted that the Ranch was simply “a boarding house for young people” in need of a positive sober environment.

Two weeks after Freeway was dissolved, Meehan started a new ES program called Good Company. City licensing officials learned about it when a reporter called them with questions, prompting yet another investigation. Meanwhile, the parents hounding Meehan in San Diego flew to a SLIC Ranch he’d opened in Phoenix and related their horror stories to the board there. In the space of a few weeks, Good Company, the Ranch, and the Phoenix SLIC were all shuttered by state authorities on the grounds that Meehan was, as the Los Angeles Times put it, “not fit to operate them.” One San Diego official told the press that Meehan would not be eligible for a license to operate treatment programs there if he reapplied. “He’s not a person who would respond to regulation,” the official said.

St. Louis, then, presented the right opportunity at the right time. Meehan needed a new program, kids to populate it, and, eventually, a place to send them for treatment. Built on the remains of the PDAP branch, Crossroads was a modest operation, but Meehan didn’t need much to get his business model off the ground. A willing counselor or two would suffice.

“The girls were like Manson girls—really, really loyal. Meehan convinces them he’s saved their life, that their families and society really screwed them up.”

When Frank Szachta moved back to St. Louis, six weeks after Meehan’s visit, Cherry drove to meet him. The two twentysomethings prayed and talked excitedly about the work to come. Soon they were fixtures at local high schools, running workshops during the first few class periods, then holding court in the cafeteria at lunch. They regaled students with stories—some true, some exaggerated—about their dissolute pasts. Attendance at Crossroads meetings surged.

In those days, Cherry literally sang on his way into work. He and Melissa had been on and off romantically, but their relationship was now growing more serious. His goal, Cherry often told her, was to become the best drug counselor in the world.

One day, according to Cherry, a call came in to the Crossroads office. The man on the line introduced himself as Art Peiffer, owner of a company called American Healthnet. Though based in Arlington, Texas, the company had recently purchased Forum Hospital, a 60-bed inpatient treatment center in St. Louis, located just a short drive from Crossroads. According to Cherry, he and Szachta consulted Meehan, who told them to give Peiffer whatever he wanted—and what he wanted was for Crossroads to refer its participants to Forum. (Peiffer, it turned out, had helped structure Meehan’s earlier hospital deals with Fred Kotzen, in Houston, though neither Cherry nor Szachta knew this at the time.)

Crossroads began making referrals to Forum, and it wasn’t alone in doing so. A Meehan loyalist named John Cates was working for Forum while overseeing the opening of new ES programs around the country. Each chapter was its own LLC, informally connected to an organization called John Cates Associates (and, later, Lifeway). These programs also began funneling kids to Forum.

Although Meehan had no formal stake in the programs, he was essential to their steady flow of referrals. According to Cherry and two other people involved at the time, Cates and Peiffer paid Meehan a consultant’s fee to tour ES programs and hype counselors on the mission of sending kids to Forum. Under Meehan, this became a spiritual matter. Social worth within the ES world, and the chances of promotion within a given program, became closely tied to how many young people counselors sent for a hospital stay.

Meehan’s sermons worked, and business took off. According to Cherry, inpatient treatment at Forum typically lasted 30 to 45 days, at a rate of $1,200 per day. Insurance companies covered the bill. Some of the clients who spent time at the hospital went on to become ES counselors themselves, and in turn referred other young people to Forum. The excitement around Meehan’s method—what it could do for kids, their families, and ES staff—was palpable. As the St. Louis Post-Dispatch noted, Forum’s First National Super Session for Drug-Free Youth, an event held at a local Sheraton and hosted by former Dallas linebacker Thomas “Hollywood” Henderson, “resembled a high-spirited pep rally rather than a session on drug abuse.”

The arrangement with Forum was just a few months old when Cherry was offered a new job: inpatient program director. He would set the course of care, run group therapy, and coordinate a daily schedule for Forum’s clients. Cherry was hesitant—he’d recently reenrolled in college—but accepted the offer. Cherry often worked through the night. When he didn’t, he slept with a pager by his bed. He juggled his classwork with running a rehab program full-time. He was 21.

The job brought Cherry close to Cates, who became a mentor, advising him on his relationship with Melissa and introducing him to the works of Joseph Campbell and Carl Jung. (Cates declined multiple interview requests for this story. “I have no desire in any way to revisit these painful times,” he wrote in an email.) In the 1970s, Cates taught grade-school math in Houston, until he began using heroin and was arrested for trafficking the drug. Meehan helped him get sober. Now in his late thirties, Cates’s style was an amalgam of country and heavy metal: He wore cowboy boots and fringed leather jackets, and his black hair had a blond stripe.

According to Cherry, Cates summoned him to a hotel room at the annual Crossroads banquet in 1987. “How’d you like to go to Atlanta?” Cates asked. A former Crossroads client had recently moved there and was running unofficial ES meetings out of his parents’ basement. Ten or so teenagers were in regular attendance. Cates hoped to grow the program by the usual ES strategy—recruiting a base of charismatic teens and building from there—and then enroll some of the kids in an intensive outpatient program, or IOP. The IOP model would be somewhere between a stint at Forum and run-of-the-mill ES participation, which typically entailed a few meetings a week. Instead of checking into a hospital, IOP clients would attend meetings six hours a day, for six weeks, while living either at home or with a host family. Their progress would be overseen largely by teenagers and young adults whose sole credential was being ES believers. The one-time fee for the program could run upwards of $3,000, according to several former staff.

In Atlanta, Cherry would have to find and lease a building suitable for IOP work. He would need to navigate the byzantine process required to offer treatment services: establishing an LLC, finding a clinical supervisor, assembling a comprehensive policy and procedure manual. And he would be responsible for recruiting five or six counselors to help him get the operation going. 

Cherry told Cates no. He had no desire to drop out of college again. He didn’t want to move—he and Melissa were recently engaged. Besides, what if the business failed? What would he do then?

Cates insisted that Cherry take the job. It was, Cherry recalled him saying, the best wedding present a guy could hope for. When Meehan entered the room, Cherry repeated his concerns. But Meehan, Cherry said, wouldn’t listen. Going to Atlanta, Meehan said, was what he had to do.

Cherry agreed to at least go for a visit. The trip didn’t change his mind, but when he got back, he found that Cates and Meehan were acting as though it was a done deal. “I felt like I had no choice,” Cherry said. So he quit school and moved south.

He was scared. He had just enough money to pay the security deposit and first month’s rent on an apartment. He delivered pizzas to support himself as he labored to get the new program off the ground. Somehow he managed: Within a few months, there were enough IOP clients to make the Atlanta outfit self-sustaining. The local press took notice. Cherry, described as “a bearded, 24-year-old former Missourian with longish brown hair who smokes two packs of cigarettes a day,” was quoted in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution explaining the ES ethos. “One of the things we teach people to do is to dance sober,” Cherry told the newspaper. “They know how to dance loaded, but they have to know how to dance sober.”

Around this time, Cherry was summoned to St. Louis to testify in front of a grand jury: Forum had recently shut down, and its former administrator, a man named Charles Butler, was under investigation for insurance fraud and for overbilling patients. Cherry said that he confirmed the prosecution’s findings, but that he didn’t know what Butler was doing was against the law. He was assured that Meehan, Peiffer, and Cates were unaware of any illegal activity. To his mind, ES was a spiritually pure endeavor—the program’s leaders would never do anything unethical. Butler was indicted and eventually sent to prison. A hospital administrator interviewed for this story described him as a “fall guy.”

Forum’s closure forced a change in the ES business model. Cates and Peiffer started a new company, called International Healthnet, that would design in-hospital ES programs and populate them with patients for a per-person fee. The two men quickly struck a deal with a hospital in Houston, and Cherry was asked to move there. This time he didn’t bother resisting, even though his success in Atlanta hadn’t made him any more confident. “I would take on these things and feel there was no way they could ever work, that I was going to fail and end up living on the streets,” he said. He went to Houston in 1989, sending for Melissa—whom he’d married by then, in a church packed with ES followers—once he’d found a place to live.

Cherry often worked through the night. When he didn’t, he slept with a pager by his bed. He juggled his classwork with running a rehab program full-time. He was 21.

At first, business in Houston boomed. ES clients arrived at the hospital in batches. “Not one or two kids,” a former counselor recalled. “Dozens at a time.” Some teenagers showed up on the flimsiest of pretexts—usually it was something that had surfaced during an ES meeting. “If the kid said, ‘I think I had a dream that my grandfather touched me inappropriately’—boom, off to the hospital they went,” the former counselor said.

As it turned out, this was part of a wider trend of people exploiting the lax regulatory environment of the late 1980s. A 1991 Houston Chronicle series called “Profitable Addictions” exposed some of the worst offenses. Between 1984 and 1989, the number of private psychiatric hospitals in Texas nearly tripled. To fill what the Chronicle referred to as the “glut of hospital beds,” facilities contracted with headhunting firms, which referred patients for a fee. The Chronicle described headhunters infiltrating AA meetings, getting well-insured members drunk, and depositing them at hospitals; probation officers accepting bribes to refer patients; hospital staff combing through the records of public high schools, looking for potential clients. A committee chairwoman in Congress would call it “one of the most disgraceful and scandalous episodes in the history of health care in America.”

As investigations played out on front pages and in government hearings, ES evaded scrutiny. But a subsequent raft of anti-headhunting laws in multiple states complicated things for Meehan and Cates. Meanwhile, insurance companies began tightening restrictions, too. In Cherry’s experience, this meant that providers went from covering as much as six weeks of inpatient treatment to just three or four days. Steadily, the money from the ES program-to-hospital pipeline dried up. Everyone was affected: Cates and Peiffer, who created the pipeline; staff like Cherry, who managed it; and Meehan, the mastermind and hype man, who got paid to keep it flowing.

In 1992, at an ES retreat in California, Meehan took on a protégé who would soon help him reinvent himself once again. Dave Larsen had revered Meehan for years. It all started at the age of 15, back when Larsen was a six-foot-tall, 200-pound Satanist with 63 unexcused absences from school and citations for shoplifting, vandalism, and drug possession. “Honestly,” Larsen said, “I just really wanted people to be scared of me.” A bad acid trip landed him at an ES meeting in California, and a month of exposure to the method was all it took for him to shed his tough-guy persona. “I sat in those meetings and I cried,” he said. Like Cherry and other devout believers, Larsen decided to dedicate his life to ES.

By 22, Larsen had a wife, a child, and a job as director of an ES program in Dallas. His reputation was as a beacon of positivity, someone who took a gentle approach with clients. At the retreat in California, Meehan took a liking to him. According to a former ES counselor, Meehan described Larsen as “the second coming of Christ.” When Larsen let slip to Meehan that he was applying to run a new ES chapter in Phoenix, Meehan immediately put in a call to Cates, who was overseeing hiring. A few days later, Larsen had the job.

Larsen quickly grew the Phoenix program, and soon Charter Hospital came calling. The medical facility offered to pay staff members’ salaries, plus a flat rate of about $6,800 per month to Meehan in exchange for running a recovery wing. Larsen went to Meehan, who according to Larsen told him to run the idea by Cates and Peiffer. But the two men wanted more than Charter was willing to pay. Negotiations stalled.

Meehan eventually called Larsen with a plan. Cates, he said, had a counseling degree, and Peiffer had a PhD. But Meehan? He didn’t have anything except ES, which was his creation. Meehan flew to Phoenix and, with Larsen’s help, took the Charter deal for himself.

According to Cherry, Cates and Peiffer were apoplectic. They would soon have reason to be angrier still. The new Meehan Recovery Center at Charter Hospital needed patients, and Cates wasn’t likely to allow referrals from the ES chapters he oversaw. So, according to multiple sources who ran them at the time, Meehan set about systematically usurping the programs. He traveled from city to city and persuaded leadership to come under the umbrella of a new organization: the International Coalition of Chemical Abuse Programs, or Icecap. (“International” referred to Canada, where Meehan had opened a few programs, though his efforts to launch one had ended with allegations that ES was, according to the Vancouver Sun, “a cult.”)

In the minds of many ES staff, the decision whether to follow Meehan wasn’t hard. For one thing, Cates had stopped paying them. In Houston, Cherry’s staff were selling tie-dyed T-shirts to afford food. Even more salient was the fact that, although program directors and counselors respected Cates, they revered Meehan. In a pre-Google world, the 60 Minutes segment and Meehan’s various business failures hadn’t done serious damage to his reputation. Meehan was friends with rock stars. He was a frequent guest on Oprah, giving his views on youth and addiction. His book Beyond the Yellow Brick Road: Our Children and Drugs had received glowing media attention when he self-published it in 1984, and it was now the bible for ES programs everywhere. Meehan’s visits to the branches were sacred occasions. “He really was a celebrity in our lives,” Larsen said.

Meehan couldn’t offer the struggling ES programs any money; the Charter deal would only be enough to cover his work. But as the source of all ES teachings, he could offer unparalleled guidance. And maybe that would be enough to save the programs from collapse.

Larsen, in Phoenix, signed on with Meehan, as did program directors in Atlanta and St. Louis. But Cherry, who was offered the job of running the Meehan Recovery Center, wavered. “At that point,” he said, “I wanted to get out.”

In an effort to persuade him to stay on board, Larsen flew Cherry out to Phoenix. The two men sat on a hilltop overlooking the city and talked about the future. Larsen tried to sell him on what they could build together. Cherry already knew Dave’s wife, Wendy, another ES acolyte who had once worked at Forum Hospital.

Cherry had been involved in ES for a decade. Nearing 30, he had no college degree, no savings, no prospects outside the ES world. Recently, the police had shown up at his house in Houston when a check for groceries bounced. Soon he was forced to give up the house—he and Melissa couldn’t make the mortgage payments. Cherry daydreamed about moving to California and starting a band.

The Larsens had recently paid a visit to Southern California, to see Meehan and his inner circle, known among ES followers as the Family. In addition to Meehan, his wife, Joy, and their biological daughter—also named Wendy—the Family included their informally adopted daughter, Susan, and her husband, Jeffrey Hamilton, who was Carol Burnett’s stepson. There was also Jake Conway, the son of the TV star who’d once funded Freeway, and his wife; as well as a couple named Byron and Renae Smith. Many of them lived within a few minutes of each other in Escondido, north of San Diego. The Meehans’ home had a vast yard that they’d converted into a kind of park, with footpaths and a Zen garden.

Increasingly, members of the Family were interested in New Age mysticism, and the Larsens had returned from their trip with a pack of Medicine Cards, which, like tarot cards, were supposed to provide insight into an individual’s life. During Cherry’s visit, the Larsens used the cards well into the night. When Cherry drew a card depicting a whale, the Larsens told him it symbolized all the latent wisdom waiting to flow out of him. Cherry was tired and overworked. “I’d been getting the shit kicked out of me,” he said. To hear someone highlight his strengths energized him.

Cherry agreed to move to Phoenix, but he still had concerns. He told the Larsens that he was worried about Meehan. Eight years had passed since he’d sat across from the ES founder in a St. Louis hotel room. Since then, Cherry’s reverence had been tempered with something like fear. He’d seen how the love and understanding Meehan promised his followers could contort into coercion and control.

Part Three

Upon its inception, Icecap consisted of five programs: Crossroads in St. Louis, Insight in Atlanta, and Lifeway, which had branches in Dallas, San Antonio, and Phoenix. Soon they would be joined by a Colorado program, which at first was called Alpha, and later Cornerstone. Formally speaking, Meehan didn’t own or even run these programs. He received his money from Charter Hospital, income that he augmented by hosting paid seminars. When Meehan visited an Icecap program, he conducted two talks—one for clients and one for their parents. Everyone was expected to pay $50 to attend.

Above: Dave Larsen in July 2021.

Nonetheless, local leaders were expected to call Meehan daily to consult on their operations. Meehan also dictated who in Icecap worked where, often moving counselors across the country with little advance notice. As a staff-retention technique, it was perversely effective. Stationed in strange cities, with few or no contacts outside ES, counselors weren’t inclined to leave the world Meehan had built.

In Phoenix, Dave Cherry was happier than he’d been in a long while. Larsen drove him to work at Charter every morning; the friends spent the commute getting excited about the noble work of helping kids stop using drugs. Both had newborns, and in their free time the two families roamed together in a park near the Larsens’ house, a desertscape of red sandstone and saguaro cactus. Some nights Cherry and Larsen—the two Daves—would drive around for hours, talking about God, fatherhood, and ES.

Cherry liked his new job, despite some distinct challenges. Whenever Meehan visited the recovery wing at Charter, which he did frequently, he terrorized the unit’s doctor, according to Cherry. “You take the fucking medications!” Meehan once shouted after the doctor tried prescribing an ES patient psychiatric drugs. (According to Larsen, “any kind of psychiatric medication was a deal breaker” for Meehan; the ES method was supposed to be enough to keep people on an even keel.) Meanwhile, the wing’s staff—most of whom were ES counselors, some as young as 18—were constantly forgetting their badges and keys, creating a hassle for hospital personnel. They had trashed the hospital’s van, used to ferry clients to ES meetings; the interior was covered in graffiti and cigarette burns. At times, when Cherry was chastising his staff and cleaning up after them, his job felt more like parenting than running a hospital unit.

Larsen kept busy expanding the ES program in Phoenix, which at some point was rebranded Pathway. He required counselors to make at least three community contacts each week, by calling or visiting therapists, treatment specialists, family doctors, government officials, probation departments, and drug courts in search of new participants. He estimated that 200 to 300 kids were soon in regular attendance at Pathway meetings, and that, of those, 70 percent paid to go through ES treatment at Charter.

As ever, enjoyment was paramount to the program. Counselors organized tricycle races, DIY game shows, and mock Olympics, in which some participants wore rented sumo suits. There were drug-free raves or dances every weekend, and twice-yearly Round Robins, where attendees were together for 12 hours straight. They were told it was all in service of keeping their demons at bay. Not everyone was an addict, but those who were had an incentive to exaggerate their experiences with substance abuse. As one former client recalled, the most popular kids had been “the most fucked up” and “made the biggest turnaround.”

Some young people passed through ES and continued on with their lives. Others were elevated to the program’s steering committee or staff, entering a world with Meehan and the Family at its center. They were indoctrinated into the belief that Meehan was a spiritual titan, the man who’d invented the philosophy that had saved their lives. Now he was both their boss and adviser. Pleasing him—and his wife, Joy—was both a professional imperative and a way to progress along the path to enlightenment. So when the Meehans insisted on controlling their staff’s personal lives, people went along with it. Joy viewed exercise as an expression of vanity, so ES insiders didn’t work out unless instructed to. Bob, meanwhile, believed that it was disrespectful for men to pee standing up, because they might splash the seat, and were instructed to relieve themselves while sitting.

More significantly, according to multiple sources, ES staff were expected to date one another. Once they were married, women were discouraged from working—for an ES program or anywhere else. They were urged to stay home and raise children. Anyone who resisted the Meehans’ wishes could face their wrath.

Not everyone was an addict, but those who were had an incentive to exaggerate their experiences with substance abuse. As one former client recalled, the most popular kids had been “the most fucked up” and “made the biggest turnaround.”

Cherry began to notice that people at work were acting differently around him. Larsen stopped calling to hang out. Colleagues went silent when he entered the room. He even convinced himself that Melissa was freezing him out: When he tried to talk to his wife, he detected an eerie, curt formality. Cherry racked his brain for what he might have done wrong but came up empty. “I was starting to get scared,” he said.

One Friday afternoon, Susan Hamilton, the Meehans’ adopted daughter, stopped by Cherry’s house while visiting from Escondido. She was a surrogate when Meehan wasn’t present; her words were a reflection of his will. But unlike Meehan, she never yelled or stomped around. “Her demeanor was always very calm and very gentle,” Cherry said. She smiled and tilted her head like a well-meaning social worker. “Pushing, pushing, pushing, pushing, until you break,” a person who once knew her recalled.

Hamilton gave Cherry a perfunctory hello and proceeded to the backyard to talk with Melissa. Cherry watched them through sliding glass door while his daughter zoomed around in her diaper. As Hamilton spoke, she repeatedly glanced toward him. When he stepped outside, the women stopped talking. Cherry returned to the kitchen. The dread he’d felt for weeks grew palpable, choking him. After Hamilton left, he was too frightened to ask Melissa what she’d said.

That evening, the Cherrys went to the Pathway office for what was known as a Purpose meeting. Every other Friday night, the staff of each ES program gathered for what were ostensibly forums to work through personal issues—to help one another the way they helped clients. Wives were expected to attend as well. When Cherry arrived, Dave Larsen was already there, and he pulled Cherry into his office.

“Look, man,” Larsen said, “tonight’s Purpose is going to be about you.”

Cherry didn’t know what that meant. Purposes weren’t typically about individual people. Larsen kept talking, matter-of-factly but not without kindness. He said Cherry didn’t have to go through with what was coming next. He could just leave—both the meeting and ES, forever.

Cherry said a silent prayer before stepping into the low-lit meeting room. He saw roughly 15 friends and colleagues seated in a circle of metal folding chairs. The group consisted of Cherry’s entire social world, save the Meehans, who weren’t present. Two seats were empty—Cherry’s and Melissa’s. His wife, Cherry was told, was in another room, talking on the phone with Joy Meehan. Jeffrey Hamilton, Susan’s husband, was at the Cherrys’ house, babysitting their daughter. Cherry was sure that if he got up and left, he would return home to find his daughter gone; she and Melissa would be kept in the ES fold no matter what.

For years afterward, Cherry assumed that Melissa had known what was about to happen. But Melissa said she wasn’t told that her husband would be targeted at the Purpose until she arrived. She also remembered several parts of the night differently than he did. For instance, she didn’t recall Susan Hamilton talking with her privately, nor Jeffrey Hamilton babysitting her daughter.

Dave Larsen was the first to speak. “There are some things that people want to say to you,” he told Cherry. “We just want you to listen. Don’t say anything back.”

A torrent of criticism followed. Someone brought up how, at the hospital, Cherry had chastised the staff about trashing the van. He’d hurt their feelings. “That’s powerful,” Susan Hamilton said, nodding. Wendy Larsen related that she’d once come across Cherry on a cold day. He wasn’t wearing a coat, and she told him he might get sick. Cherry replied that colds aren’t caused by the weather, but by viruses. Cherry wanted to explain—he hadn’t meant anything by it; he just thought it was an interesting fact—but Larsen had directed him not to respond. He heard one of Meehan’s oft-repeated refrains in his head: “If you can’t see how fucked up you are, you’re more fucked up than I thought.”

Everyone in the room piled on, picking apart what felt to Cherry like everything he’d ever done, and tracing each instance back to his fundamental brokenness as a person. Cherry lost track of time. “They tore me to the ground, to the point where I felt like I didn’t even have a right to live,” he said. “I was toxic. Anywhere I went things turned to shit. I would harm people just by being near them.” When the momentum slowed, Cherry recalled, Susan Hamilton encouraged people to speak up.

At one point, Cherry felt as if he were gazing down at his own body. He was terrified. If the group decided that he was too broken to fix, and that he was no longer welcome in ES, he worried that he’d lose more than just his family—he’d almost certainly end up dead. He was an addict, and ES had taught him that this was the defining fact of his existence. Without ES to guide him, he was sure he’d overdose in some dark alley, alone and unloved.

The Purpose lasted several hours. The participants finally filed out of the office close to midnight. According to several people present, the Meehans orchestrated the entire thing—from the meeting itself to some of the things people said. Larsen said that, to this day, he isn’t sure why it happened. Though people had complained about some of Cherry’s behavior, it was the first time the Meehans had ever taken so personal an interest in confronting a staff member. “I just took directions,” Larsen said.

Several people there that night said they believed Cherry might kill himself. But the Purpose compelled Cherry to double down on his commitment to ES. “That was the thing that changed me from a person who might question Meehan,” Cherry said, “to someone who was fully in.”

If the group decided that he was too broken to fix, and that he was no longer welcome in ES, he’d lose more than just his family—he’d almost certainly end up dead.

Targeted confrontation became a regular feature of life in ES. This extended beyond Phoenix to every city where Meehan’s programs operated. The atmosphere at Icecap’s branches was soon laced with terror. Everyone knew they could be next, that the slightest mistake might one day be weaponized against them.

Eventually, word came down that the Family would move to Phoenix full-time. According to Larsen, Meehan described what they’d build there as “the front of all human spiritual evolution.” Larsen remembered Meehan talking for a time about visiting a Zen monastery in Japan, then deciding it would be pointless. “What could they teach me?” Meehan said.

News of the move to Phoenix hit Cherry hard. He was still recovering from his Purpose, and still believed what he’d been told that night. “I thought something was wrong with me, and that Bob and especially Joy could see that,” Cherry said. Many people in ES believed that Joy could read minds and even enter their dreams.

By then the Meehans had built a system of total surveillance and control based in part on the tenets of AA. ES branch directors were sponsored by Meehan, their wives were sponsored by Joy, counselors were sponsored by directors, and clients were sponsored by counselors. AA’s fourth step (and ES’s fifth) reads: “We made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.” Accordingly, each ES adherent was expected to provide their sponsor with a detailed account of their secrets and fears, as well as their failures to abide by ES orthodoxy. In turn, that information was used to manipulate the individual and their relationships. Jacqueline Leibler, a former ES counselor in Atlanta and co-founder of the advocacy group Enthusiastic Sobriety Abuse Alliance, recalled entering a romantic relationship with a coworker simply to get her boss off her back about dating within the program. When she refused to sleep with the coworker, her boss and his wife—who was also Leibler’s ES sponsor—told her, “You need to at least give him blowjobs.” Leibler caved so that they would leave her alone.

For his part, Cherry was forbidden from watching television or reading books other than those sanctioned by Meehan or AA. He was prohibited from making purchases without first consulting the Meehans. And he was told that he could no longer speak with his parents. Were Cherry to break any of these rules, he could expect Melissa to let the Meehans know about it, possibly prompting another Purpose and risking exile. When Cherry’s father knocked on the family’s door one day—he’d flown from St. Louis after months had passed without word from his son—Melissa and their three-year-old daughter cowered in the bathroom until he gave up and drove away.

But even as he did everything he was told, Cherry kept getting the same message from the Family: Something was wrong with him. Just as they had in Escondido, the Meehans had a Zen garden in the backyard of their Phoenix home, and senior ES staff were permitted to visit it whenever they liked. At times of acute anxiety, Cherry sometimes went there to think. He always hoped Meehan might step outside, pleasantly surprised to find him there. He pictured Meehan sitting beside him and telling him that he was OK, that he was safe, that he wouldn’t find himself the subject of another Purpose tomorrow, next week, or ever.

Cherry sat in the Zen garden for more hours than he could count. Meehan never came.

Cherry was forbidden from watching television or reading books other than those sanctioned by Meehan or AA. He was prohibited from making purchases without first consulting the Meehans. And he was told that he could no longer speak with his parents.

“I’m in love.”

That’s what Wendy Meehan, Bob and Joy’s daughter, told Wendy Larsen one day when they were out for a drive. The Meehans’ only biological child was in her early twenties, and it was common knowledge that her parents were trying to find her a suitable husband. Recently, at an Icecap convention in San Diego, Wendy Meehan had connected with Clint Stonebraker, who ran the Atlanta program. Stonebreaker had come to ES in his mid-teens. He was svelte, clean-cut, and unfailingly cheerful. In a social world notable for the zeal of its converts, he stood out for his fervency. “Bob Meehan Jr.” is how one former ES counselor described him.

Stonebraker and Wendy Meehan had struck up an intense phone correspondence and even met for a first date. This was unsettling news for Wendy Larsen. She’d been involved with Stonebraker in the past—a three-month fling when they were both working in St. Louis. At a team meeting shortly after they broke up, she mockingly stuck her tongue out at him. Stonebraker reportedly stormed across the room and whipped her across the head three times with his “monkey fist,” a small metal ball encased in leather and strung on a necklace, given to ES members after 30 days of sobriety. A source present when this happened confirmed the incident; both Dave Larsen and a onetime member of the Family who asked to remain anonymous said they heard about it after the fact.

According to Wendy Larsen, she told Wendy Meehan about the attack, who in turn told her mother. Joy questioned Stonebraker, who denied hitting his ex. When asked about the matter for this story, Stonebraker wrote in an email, “If Joy and I had that conversation I did deny it because the incident with Wendy didn’t happen.”

A month after their first date, Stonebraker and Wendy Meehan were engaged. Bob and Joy asked Dave Larsen to hire Stonebraker in Phoenix so that he could move there to be with his fiancée. When Stonebraker arrived, Wendy Larsen apologized for provoking him all those years ago in St. Louis. She said that he refused to acknowledge that he’d hit her. (Stonebraker would neither confirm nor deny that the conversation took place. “Wendy Larsen and I had a good relationship during my time in Phoenix,” he wrote in an email.)

Dave Larsen had always seemed like the natural successor to Meehan, and he’d been groomed accordingly. But once Stonebraker was in Phoenix, the perception of Larsen began to change. The idea trickled down from the very top of the ES hierarchy that Larsen was, in recovery-speak, “self-will run riot.” Not everyone understood the shift in opinion—a former Family member said, “I never understood what Dave had done wrong.

The eventual, inevitable Purpose remains one of the most traumatizing events of Larsen’s life. People’s ferocity in attacking him seemed linked to the relief that it wasn’t their turn. Afterward, Larsen fell apart. He stopped showing up for work. When the Meehans asked him to hand control of Pathway over to Stonebraker—to give up everything he’d built in Phoenix—Larsen didn’t resist. He believed the things he was told. “I didn’t want to hurt the program,” Larsen said. “I felt like I was doing the right thing—protecting it from me.”

In short order, he was sent to run a struggling ES program in Colorado, taking his family with him. Before he left, Larsen was given one last major task: securing a horse and carriage to surprise Stonebraker and Wendy Meehan with at their wedding.

“I didn’t want to hurt the program,” Larsen said. “I felt like I was doing the right thing—protecting it from me.”

Cherry was working 80-hour weeks at the time, still laboring to get back into the Family’s good graces. He continued to run the Meehan Recovery Center at Charter Hospital, a full-time job. In addition, he made sure that various ES programs complied with state law and other regulations. It was something of a specialty of his. He’d reviewed the coursework for the Meehan Institute, a new “school” in Phoenix, where aspiring counselors were versed in the ES method; he’d done the same with the protocols for Step Two, a residential rehab facility modeled on the failed SLIC Ranch in California. The day Cherry finished that project, he was summoned to speak with Meehan at the Stonebrakers’ house.

The Meehans and the Stonebrakers lived next door to each other. Most ES staff made do with cramped quarters—a consequence of their low salaries—but not those two families. They owned homes with swimming pools, formal dining rooms, and multicar garages. In the Stonebrakers’ backyard, a brick path led to a garden bench, which is where Cherry met Meehan that day. Meehan’s legs were crossed, and he was cradling a large stick stripped of its bark. “I just knew he was going to hit me with that stick,” Cherry recalled.

Meehan instructed him to come close. “You’re afraid,” Cherry remembered Meehan saying, “and that’s a problem. You’re run by fear.” A thwack landed on Cherry’s side. “The pain you’re feeling now—that’s real,” Meehan said. “Everything else, all your fear—it’s in your head.”

The solution, Meehan continued, was a week alone in the desert. At the time, the yet-to-open Step Two was nothing more than a double-wide trailer on the edge of the San Tan Mountains. Meehan told Cherry to use that as his base camp—a place to sleep and use the bathroom—and to spend the rest of his time outdoors, getting in touch with his “true, sociopathic male self.” When he was out there, Meehan said, Cherry would be afraid. Afraid that the Family had his wife fucking some other guy. Afraid that they had shipped Melissa and Cherry’s daughter off to another city. Afraid that he’d come home to an empty house. Cherry needed to rid himself of these fears, Meehan said. In fact, he needed to rid himself of all feeling.

Meehan instructed him to drive home, pack some clothes, and tell Melissa that he’d be back, but not where he was going. Cherry did as he was instructed. Then he drove to the Step Two trailer and, for reasons he couldn’t articulate to himself, decided to dig a grave. Outside the double-wide, he found a shovel; moments later he was making a hole in the ground. The grave would be for his parents—he’d decided to kill the part of himself still attached to them and bury it forever. But the dirt was hard, unyielding. So he flung the shovel aside and ran, as if trying to outpace the images swirling around his head: a moving truck, Melissa packing up their photo albums and their daughter’s toys, the Family’s laughter as they sent her off with another man.

While he ran, an idea descended on him. He would build his own Zen garden, like the one in the Meehans’ backyard. It was suddenly very important that he find the right rocks, three total—one for him, one for Melissa, and one for their daughter. The hunt led him deep into the desert. The sun was setting when he realized that he was lost. His panic spiked with thoughts of scorpions and spiders. He heard the yips of coyotes. He gathered a bunch of small rocks—potential weapons, he thought—and climbed atop a boulder. He spent the night up there, crouched and fearful, only setting out to find the trailer when the sun came up again.

After that night, Cherry lost his fear of nature. He slept outdoors and spent his days running, smoking, and writing in the sun—he’d brought a little notebook and filled it with memories. One night he thought about how, on his way to the desert, he’d stopped at a roadside shop for some food and bottled water. The woman behind the counter had been in a buoyant mood, smiling and making conversation. Meehan always told ES staff that they were the luckiest people on the planet, the only ones who were genuinely fulfilled. And yet Cherry realized that he was miserable. The woman at the store seemed happier.

“I’m thinking, there are millions of people out there, and they’re not going through the shit I’m going through,” Cherry said. “They’re sleeping sound. They’re getting up and sending their children to school. They’re not worried about a bunch of people packing their wife off to live with some other guy.”

A thought—wholly contrary to why Meehan had sent Cherry to the desert, and terrifying in its implications—took shape over the next several hours: Meehan was just a man. He couldn’t take anything from Cherry if Cherry didn’t let him. By the time he drove back to Phoenix, Cherry was determined to get out of his predicament—to leave ES for good.

The grave would be for his parents—he’d decided to kill the part of himself still attached to them and bury it forever.

Despite the prohibition on exercise, Cherry was allowed to rollerblade. He did it at night, after Melissa went to sleep, exploring his neighborhood’s shortcuts and byways, seeking the quickest path to the Meehans’ house. He found that he could get there and back in 17 minutes: Melissa would never know he was gone. He got several mason jars, which he hid in some bushes. Now he needed gasoline. The Meehans, he knew, kept their kitchen door unlocked and slept in separate beds, each with a fan facing it. He decided to go inside their home one night, light Molotov cocktails, and hurl them at the couple’s headboards.

Cherry believed that there was no other way of leaving ES with his family intact. With Melissa under the Meehans’ sway, he couldn’t persuade her to go with him. One night he came home to find large red dots plastered around the house. Joy, he knew, had instructed Melissa to put them up, as reminders of something. When he asked what they were for, Melissa told him it was none of his business.

In the end, what stopped him from trying to kill the people who controlled his life were the headlines that kept flashing in his head—the media holding up Meehan as someone who had devoted his life to helping others, only to be murdered by a man he’d tried desperately to save. Cherry didn’t want that. Meehan didn’t deserve a glowing postscript.

But the reasons for Cherry to leave kept piling up. Despite their pious front, the Meehans routinely ridiculed religious people, and one night they led Cherry to their bedroom and made him drop to his knees and renounce God; later, Bob Meehan told him that “the closest thing you have to God in your life is me.” An ES counselor who’d pleaded in vain for help with a depressive client was later blamed for the client’s suicide and subjected to a damaging Purpose. Another got pregnant and, according to a half-dozen people with knowledge of the situation, was coerced by the Meehans into getting an abortion. Meanwhile, Jeffrey Hamilton, Susan’s husband, became gravely ill with hepatitis C and needed a liver transplant. The Meehans insisted that the operation would damage him spiritually; they prescribed cleanses and the 12 steps to get well. When her husband died, Susan was excommunicated from the ES world—apparently, near the end, Jeffrey had seen a doctor with her encouragement. (Multiple people I spoke to believe Jeffrey would have lived were it not for the Meehans. Susan Hamilton did not respond to requests for comment.)

Cherry was determined to find a way to get his family out. Driving home from work each day, he put on a Deepak Chopra tape and prepared himself to pretend, for Melissa, that he was still fully immersed in ES. He also went against the Family’s edict and bought a book by an outsider, Combating Cult Mind Control, by Steve Hassan, hoping it would provide guidance on how to reach his wife. Cherry scrawled excerpts from the book on slips of paper and kept them in his pockets to fortify his resolve. The book advised seeking opportunities to discuss what life was like before a person joined a cult, but that was difficult for Cherry, because communication in his marriage was conducted through the Meehans. “Melissa talked to Joy, Joy talked to Bob, Bob talked to me,” Cherry said, and vice versa.

He hoped to have more luck with another of the book’s suggestions: waiting until your loved one is at odds with the group, then broaching the subject of leaving. Months went by before Cherry had his chance. He and Melissa wanted to have a second child, and Melissa asked Joy for permission. She returned from their meeting crestfallen: Joy had said no. Cherry decided it was time to make a move.

“I don’t feel any passion anymore,” he said. This felt safe. Depending on Melissa’s reaction, he could pull back—writing off what he’d said as just thinking aloud—or go further.

“I feel the same way,” Melissa replied.

Soon after, the couple decided to depart ES together. The plan was to leave Phoenix behind, go somewhere else, figure out a new chapter for their lives. It all started simply enough: Cherry told Meehan that he was quitting his job at Charter Hospital, and he gave 30 days’ notice. Meehan took Cherry’s resignation calmly, almost like he’d expected it—or didn’t believe it was real.

A few months prior, Meehan had decided that he wanted to get a new Icecap branch off the ground in Allentown, Pennsylvania. Cherry was supposed to handle the licensing. After announcing that he was leaving, Cherry repeatedly asked Meehan if he’d informed the families in Pennsylvania, who’d offered support for the planned program. Meehan kept putting it off, so Cherry took it upon himself to call the main contact.

The man listened to Cherry’s explanation, then said, “How about you come out here and run the program yourself?” Cherry tried clarifying—he wasn’t just leaving Arizona, he was leaving ES. The guy cut him off midsentence. He understood, but he still wanted Cherry to come. The program wouldn’t have to be a part of Icecap. It wouldn’t have to be linked to Meehan in any way. It would just be a recovery initiative for teens in need.

Cherry took the job, working out the logistics in secret. He would call Allentown from unoccupied rooms at Charter, worried that Meehan had tapped his phone. In 1998, the Cherrys gathered up their belongings and quietly left Phoenix. ES insiders interviewed decades later still believed that the couple had fled without warning in the middle of the night.

Part Four

For five years, Dave Larsen didn’t know where the Cherrys had gone. It was as if they simply vanished. No one told the Larsens anything when they visited Phoenix from Colorado a few times a year, and they never asked.

Above: Meehan and ES-related mementos given to program participants.

During one trip, in 1999, Wendy Larsen was lounging on a couch, catching up with two female friends in ES, when a turn in the conversation caused her to sit up straight. The women were talking about Clint Stonebraker. This in itself was risky—he was part of the Family, and gossip always seemed to get back to them. Since the Larsens’ move to Colorado, Stonebraker had settled comfortably into power: In addition to taking over Pathway, he now ran the Meehan Institute. “To talk about Clint was terrifying,” said one of the women who spoke to Wendy that day. “It could’ve been the end of me.” But the women talked anyway, and what one of them related left Wendy aghast.

The woman, who agreed to speak with me on condition of anonymity, said that Stonebraker’s verbal attacks on his colleagues had become relentless. He would seize on some perceived character defect and probe it relentlessly. “Somebody who sneezed or made a sound, for weeks, months, he would make fun of them for it,” the woman said. She also said that Stonebraker had accused her of using her “tits to get attention.” Taking issue with the way she dressed, he’d deputized his wife to prepare daily instructions of what to wear and how to do her hair and makeup.

Multiple sources echoed these claims about Stonebraker’s behavior. Jacqueline Leibler, who worked at Insight in Atlanta, said he “would just find any vulnerability, anything you felt insecure about, and he would voice it in front of the room.” She recalled Stonebraker mocking her for crying in a Purpose meeting. According to several people, he screamed at women and called them names. Dave Larsen remembered him using “hideous misogynistic terms” in conversation, including “slam holes” and “cum dumpsters.”

After a teenaged Pathway client named Shelly Mason was in a terrible car wreck that necessitated air evacuation and a six-week hospital stay, she was summoned to Stonebraker’s office, where he berated her and insisted that she’d crashed because she was spiritually sick. According to Mason, she was instructed to view the accident as a “relapse” and told to persuade her parents to put her in treatment at Step Two, at a cost of roughly $10,000. Mason, who is diabetic, said that Stonebraker also told her that she’d willed her disease into existence, and that only if she got rid of it would she be allowed to attend the Meehan Institute when she turned 18. (She didn’t enroll at the institute.)

When she heard about Stonebraker’s behavior, Wendy Larsen was furious. She had warned the Meehans about him. This time she wasn’t going to be cowed. She asked her husband to address the issue, and Dave called in Frank Szachta, the longtime head of the ES branch in St. Louis and someone the Meehans trusted. Bob and Joy, when told about their son-in-law’s behavior, agreed that action was needed. Stonebraker was subjected to a Purpose that was as brutal as any Dave Larsen had seen. Afterward, according to a source present at the time, Szachta “facilitated several discussions” with ES staff about Stonebraker’s conduct, “making it clear that these things were not OK.”

Stonebraker spent some time off—a week, in his recollection. “I was definitely overly aggressive at that time,” he wrote in an email, in which he also denied specific allegations made against him, including his treatment of Shelly Mason. When Stonebraker returned to work, he delivered a round of personal apologies. But soon after, according to multiple former colleagues, he was back to his old self.

Meanwhile, rumors began to circulate about Wendy Larsen—that she was messed up, sick, a bad mother. According to Dave Larsen, Meehan told him that for one year, he was to leave for work early, come home late, and stick to superficial conversation with his wife, as punishment. “They told me not to talk to her about anything real,” Larsen said. The same tactic had been used to break up other couples, according to former ES followers.

Wendy Larsen was growing sick of ES. She was also bored. “I felt like, is this all there is?” she recalled. She dreaded going to even one more Purpose. She felt her husband pulling away but didn’t know why. So she turned her attention to her own needs. She joined a church orchestra and took hot-yoga classes, both of which lowered her even further in the Family’s esteem. When she told her husband privately, in their kitchen, that she didn’t want to be like the Meehans—“I don’t want to have their marriage”—he told her not to say that sort of thing out loud. The Family might hear somehow.

The Colorado program that Dave Larsen had been sent to run was booming. The Family knew this because Renae Smith, one of its members, handled the books for some of the Icecap branches. Larsen had been paying Meehan a few thousand dollars per month—a consultant’s fee—but when Meehan realized how well things were going in Colorado, he insisted that he receive an additional $40,000. Meehan called it a “sacrament,” Larsen said. Larsen gave him the money.

Things took a turn for the worse in 2003. While Larsen was visiting the Family, Joy told him, “You know, there are other ways out of that marriage besides death.” Slowly, the Meehans worked to convince Larsen that his marriage was tainted, until finally he agreed to leave Wendy. He cried night after night, so Bob Meehan suggested that he spend ten days in St. Louis talking to Frank Szachta. Before leaving, Larsen stopped by his family’s home to pack. He and Wendy talked briefly, and Larsen felt a flutter of uncertainty. Then, in St. Louis, while Szachta was extolling Meehan’s virtues for the millionth time, Larsen had an epiphany at odds with the Family’s plans for him. What ES provided wasn’t love, he thought. It wasn’t even real.

Larsen raced back to his family—he drove so fast from the airport he was pulled over for speeding. “I want to be home again,” he told Wendy when he arrived at the front door. She agreed. He held his family in an embrace. That night they decided to leave ES.

When Larsen’s friends had fled or been excommunicated, he’d never thought to track them down. According to Meehan, they were dangerous; contacting them risked courting spiritual infection. But with ES in the rearview mirror, Larsen knew he’d been wrong. “It was immediate,” Larsen said. “I wanted my friendships back.” He got online and started searching.

Joy told Larsen, “You know, there are other ways out of that marriage besides death.”

For months after Dave Cherry left ES, he’d worried that the Family would send someone to Allentown to kill him. He barely slept—he still believed Joy could enter his dreams. His anxiety made it difficult to function. He would go to the grocery store and an hour later realize he was standing in an aisle with an empty cart. It was like he’d gone into a fugue state. Once while driving, he summoned the courage to call a hotline for cult survivors and managed a few barely coherent sentences before he rear-ended another car. “I just knew the reason I got in that crash was that I’d ratted out Bob,” Cherry said. “I’d taken Family stuff outside the Family.”

Eventually, Cherry sought help from a counselor. As they talked, Cherry noticed that the man was always a step ahead of him. He seemed to know where all of Cherry’s stories were leading. The counselor specialized in the care of people who’d left cults, and it turned out that there were legions of Bob Meehans out there and even more Dave Cherrys—charismatic, monomaniacal, abusive leaders, and the followers they brainwashed. The clinical literature was vast, and Cherry tore through it, finding a language for everything he’d been through.

In 2003, Dave Larsen found Cherry online and called him. They had years of their lives to catch up on. Their families decided to vacation together in New York City. Once the two Daves were back together, it felt like no time had passed. They talked for hours about their respective ordeals, but Larsen visibly winced when Cherry used the word “cult.” In Larsen’s telling, “I thought Dave was being a little dramatic.”

It wasn’t until Larsen found the cult expert Steve Hassan’s work that he understood what Cherry was talking about. Hassan laid out criteria for what makes a group a cult, including regulating an individual’s physical reality, minimizing or discouraging access to non-cult sources of information, ritualistic and sometimes public confession of sins, and financial exploitation, manipulation, or dependence. ES met all the criteria. “It blew my mind,” Larsen said. “This wasn’t 80 percent—this was 100 percent.”

By the end of the New York trip, the friends had decided to go into business together, to start a new kind of teen treatment program, a rebuke to ES. They would do recovery the right way. The Cherrys, who by then had a second daughter, would relocate to Denver. The families would support each other. Within two months, the two Daves had leased an office.

Right before the move to Colorado, Cherry was doing something he often did: searching the internet for information about ES that reflected his experience and coming up empty-handed. No one, it seemed, had ever been able to expose the abuse and control that sustained the world Meehan built. Together, the Cherrys decided to create a website that changed that. Melissa suggested the name for it. Meehan often told his followers that, in prison, if you wanted to signal sincerity, you’d say you were “on the emmis.” (Emmis means “truth” in Yiddish, though it’s unclear if Meehan knew that.) The phrase had become ES slang, used when someone wanted to emphasize that they weren’t joking. “For real, man, this is on the emmis,” an ES acolyte might say. went live in the spring of 2004. Larsen, once feted by Meehan for his promotional skills, called and emailed other people he knew who’d escaped the Family’s gravitational pull, encouraging them to go to the site. In “no time at all,” Cherry said, roughly 100 people had submitted personal stories. Former ES believers used the site’s message boards to vent or reconnect; parents used them to track down kids they’d lost to Meehan’s pull. “It was a period of empowerment,” Larsen said. “We wanted some justice. We wanted to stand up to these fuckers and say, ‘We’re not scared of you anymore.’”

The website attracted the attention of journalist Abbie Boudreau, a reporter for an ABC affiliate in Phoenix. She crisscrossed the country interviewing people for a segment. Larsen and Cherry spoke to her. Boudreau also cornered Meehan on his way to an AA meeting in Atlanta, where the Family had relocated a few years prior. Meehan turned, saw the camera, and hustled into the building. From there the news crew drove to the local Icecap branch, still called Insight, and knocked on the door.

“We’re looking for Bob Meehan,” Boudreau said.

“OK, um … no comment,” a counselor in the doorway said.

Inside, a Family member looked frantically for Clint Stonebraker only to realize that he wasn’t there. Apparently, he’d been alerted that the crew was coming and had slipped out to avoid the cameras. (Stonebraker said he didn’t recall Boudreau coming to the office.)

As with the 60 Minutes episode 25 years earlier, Boudreau’s 2005 segment aired immediately after the Super Bowl, albeit only in Phoenix. The bulk of the segment consisted of footage of Meehan shot years earlier by Bob Warren, an ES follower who later left the program. “Supposedly, I was making training tapes. Well, they were terrible training tapes—they were just Bob spouting bullshit,” Warren said in an interview for this story. “He illustrated himself real well. So I sent the only copies of those tapes I had to Dave Cherry, who sent them to the TV station.”

Whittled down to a handful of damning sound bites, the footage presents Meehan as demented and bigoted. Wiry and energized, with close-cropped patches of white hair on either side of his head, he tells people training to be counselors, “Don’t think about what’s going on at home. Let those crazy motherfuckers eat their own shit.” At one point he sings the words “White woman with a n—er, white woman with a n—er.” He insists, “We don’t have fat people here. There are no fat people on staff.”

When Cherry saw the segment, he threw his fist in the air. “I was just in heaven, man,” he said. “I was so excited.”

No one, it seemed, had ever been able to expose the abuse and control that sustained the world Meehan built. Together, the Cherrys decided to create a website that changed that.

Stonebraker was furious. Soon after the exposé aired, he reportedly smashed a sack full of home movies with a hammer in the Insight office. “Why do we have these fucking VHS tapes?” he screamed, according to one staff member present that day. Stonebraker had found them scattered around the office and was worried, the staff member said, that more footage of Meehan would leak. (Stonebraker denied that the incident happened.)

There may have been other information the Family wished to keep private. Multiple sources said that racism had become an increasingly pronounced part of ES culture because of Stonebraker. “It permeated everything,” Dave Larsen said. “It wasn’t just incidents—it was at the core.” According to several of Stonebraker’s subordinates at the time, he’d wanted to move to Georgia’s Forsyth County because, he claimed, it was the whitest county in America. (In 1912, the white population there waged a campaign of terror that drove the entire Black community out.) According to Larsen, when a Family member who was Native American talked about having a child with his wife, the Family maneuvered to break them up, because Stonebraker didn’t want children who weren’t white in his neighborhood. Stonebraker allegedly kept a collection of slave figurines on prominent display in his living room, which according to several sources he called “my little n—ers,” and he once had Insight T-shirts with Confederate flags on them made for every staff member.

Former colleagues claimed that, in addition to routinely disparaging racial minorities, both Stonebraker and Meehan owned guns and encouraged ES followers to do the same. “It was very, very survivalist—us against them,” a onetime counselor recalled. Multiple sources described a Christmas party at the Stonebrakers’ house during which a few Black teenagers were spotted on the street outside. Stonebraker and Meehan allegedly grabbed handguns, yelling about “these dirty n—ers.” In the end nothing happened, but staff trainees at the party were so rattled that Stonebraker later apologized to them.

When asked for comment about these claims, Stonebraker wrote, “There are terms I have used in the past which I regret. I have learned a lot through the years and have changed that behavior.” He insisted that “racism is not a part of the culture at Insight,” and denied the specific allegations against him. He said that the Insight T-shirts were printed with the Georgia state flag, which from 1956 to 2003 included an emblem of the Confederate battle flag. He also said “race was not involved” in the incident at the Christmas party. “There were people … who felt threatened by a group of young people who did not live in the neighborhood,” he wrote. “A couple of people went outside to investigate the situation, and the police were called.”

The trainees at the party were from the Meehan Institute, which was flourishing. It, too, had relocated from Arizona to Georgia. Tuition was $4,000 per person. The trainees were former ES clients. Many of them went from an ES program to the institute, with little intervening time in the outside world.

Under Stonebraker, several former trainees said, the institute’s curriculum focused less on bolstering people’s counseling abilities than on teaching techniques of persuasion. Once they were counselors, they would need to coax people not only into sending their kids to support groups, but also into paying for more intensive treatment. “They were teaching you how to find an objection, how to overcome it, how to convince someone to do something that wasn’t financially viable for them at that moment,” a former trainee recalled. The goal was to create a sense of urgency in the parents.

Meanwhile, a onetime trainee said, entire days were given up to discussions of “how homosexuality is evil and unnatural.” Another former student at the institute recalled Meehan coming to class one day and running down a long list of groups ES believers “don’t accept”: Black people, gay people, poor people, Mexicans. One ES client from this period, who is half Hispanic, recalled a counselor turning the rest of her support group against her and two other clients who weren’t white, calling them “illegals” and “wetbacks.” She said that, as she cried, “they would be laughing at me, saying I’m not American, I don’t belong there, and I’m like, ‘Hello! I was born here!’”

“They were teaching you how to find an objection, how to overcome it, how to convince someone to do something that wasn’t financially viable for them at that moment.

Within days of the news segment airing in Phoenix, someone hurled a brick through Pathway’s window. The building was also graffitied. A follow-up report on the local ABC affiliate noted that, in just two weeks, had received some 300,000 page views. The segment concluded with a note from Meehan’s lawyer indicating that his client had decided to retire. “It is unfortunate,” the note read, “that a proud and proven legacy is being attacked at its twilight by a few disgruntled former employees who themselves were able to kick their habits with the help of Mr. Meehan.”

What, though, did retirement for Meehan really mean? In practice not much. He stopped hosting talks and seminars that people paid to attend, but according to former program staff he remained the ES guru. His book was still pushed on clients’ parents as a how-to manual. He still sponsored branch directors. And Stonebraker, the most powerful of those leaders, was still Meehan’s son-in-law.

ES staff went to great lengths to project normalcy, though the damage inflicted by the news segments and grew. A former ES staff member recalled finding a scrap of paper with the URL written on it tucked under her windshield wiper one day. Purpose meetings turned into “witch hunts,” the woman said, with higher-ups trying to determine who was to blame for declining attendance at program meetings. By 2009, ES employees around the country had stopped receiving regular paychecks. Many of them kept working anyway. It was the culture Meehan had created. According to Jacqueline Leibler, ES taught people to think, “If you’re having money problems, it’s actually a spiritual problem and you need to deal with the spiritual problem.

ES leadership seemed confident about the future. After all, Meehan and his method had weathered bad press before. What didn’t dissipate with time avid believers could work to suppress. The mother of one ES client recalled her daughter being told that if she watched the Phoenix news segment on YouTube, she would relapse into substance abuse.

Meek Publishing, a small imprint run by the Family, issued a revised edition of Meehan’s book in 2000, and a year later it published a new title. Bumper Stickers: A Simple Process to Self Improvement promised easy ways “to guarantee that you are going in the right direction based on your own definitions.” Meanwhile, Stonebraker rebranded himself as an all-purpose self-help guru. He hosted paid seminars and published a book titled Relationships for the Intimately Challenged (in later printings, Connected: The Art of Building Relationships). One section of the book seemed intended to telegraph his—and perhaps the entire Family’s—reaction to the efforts to expose ES spearheaded by Cherry and Larsen. The section describes a man named Chris, a drug-recovery counselor who is “very angry all of the time.” After resigning from the treatment facility where he worked, “he wasn’t satisfied with simply moving on with his life.” The book continues:

He held others responsible for his plight in life and was determined to make others pay. He found other disgruntled former employees and made it his mission to bring the facility to its knees. His plan failed, and he will continue this unhappy life until he understands it is his flawed belief systems and his inability to take responsibility for his own decisions and actions which created the situation and relationships of failure and dissatisfaction.

Part Five

One night in December 2017, Lanie Murphy watched her best friend die. They were street racing—Murphy, then 17, was in her car, while her friend was on his motorcycle—when a driver ran a red light. The car slammed into the motorcycle, killing the rider instantly.

Above: Cherry in July 2021.

For Murphy, who already struggled with substance abuse, the next 20 days were a blur of blackouts and arrests, pain pills and PCP. Her parents turned to Google for help, and soon sent her to a rehab facility in Gilbert, Arizona: Step Two Recovery, the same place where 20 years earlier Dave Cherry had tried to dig his parents’ grave. The program was still part of the ES empire, which in recent years had grown once again.

The bad press and backlash had been all but forgotten. Insight was still going strong in Georgia, as was Pathway in Phoenix and Crossroads in St. Louis. Between 2016 and 2020, new ES outposts opened in Sacramento, California, in Tampa, Florida, in Raleigh, North Carolina, and in Peachtree City, Georgia. Preparations soon began for one in Nashville, Tennessee. Additional ES programs have opened under the umbrella of a nonprofit called Full Circle; they’re run out of Catholic churches in Arizona, Colorado, Georgia, and Missouri.

Icecap was dissolved after the ABC segment in Phoenix, and the existing ES programs don’t advertise their organizational connections. But they form an ecosystem of sorts. Stonebraker sits on Full Circle’s board and runs six ES programs; the rest are run by Meehan acolytes involved with ES for decades. Counselors started out as clients and were trained at the Meehan Institute. They routinely send teenagers to ES residential centers—there are a total of four of these in Georgia and Arizona, including Step Two. All of them are owned and operated by Byron and Renae Smith. 

Almost from the moment Lanie Murphy entered Step Two, she was hooked. “I fell head over heels for it—all the attention and the love,” she said of the ES method. By the end of her stay, she had resolved to become a counselor. In June 2019, she was invited to join seven other trainees in Georgia for the Meehan Institute’s summer session. “I thought my life’s dream had come true,” she said.

The three-month training included long days of ES instruction—how to sell a parent on the program, how to guide a client through the steps—cut with rushed, perfunctory dips into more mainstream treatment methods. What distinguished that summer session from the many that had come before was that it would be the last time Meehan made an appearance at the institute. Nearing 80, he wasn’t dying, but he wasn’t well.

The trainees were familiar with the Meehan myth, and his visit occasioned great excitement. “Everybody was freaking out in my class, like we were meeting Kim Kardashian or something,” Murphy said. The young women in the program woke up early to do their makeup and worry over outfits. The meeting would be held at the Step One house—Step One is similar to Step Two, but for clients over 18—and the entire facility was scoured clean before Meehan’s arrival.

When he appeared, he was an old man with a portable oxygen tank and a tube hooked to his nose. He asked the trainees what he’d asked thousands of young people over the previous four decades: their name, age, and pick of poison. They rapped for a few hours, and then Meehan hugged every trainee, sitting down between embraces to catch his breath. He looked into each person’s eyes and said, “I love you.”

After graduation, Murphy was assigned to work in Georgia. Based on her account and those of more than a dozen recent ES clients, the program’s methods have changed little. Parents are pressured to enroll their children in the program; clients are encouraged to cut ties with friends, and occasionally with their own families. Teenagers with mental or physical illnesses are told that their problems are fabricated or symptoms of addiction. One client recalled being made to quit taking antidepressants, another her thyroid medication. Young people who open up about being sexually assaulted are blamed for what happened to them and discouraged from going to the police. Clients who’ve attempted suicide are berated for selfishness. (Stonebraker denied these claims, as did Renae Smith.)

It was the program’s hostility toward LGBTQ clients in particular that bothered Murphy. Some of the clients she counseled struggled with their sexuality, and she felt unprepared to help them. Multiple ES clients, from the 1970s to the present, said they were taught that homosexuality was a symptom of addiction. After Step Two opened, if a kid in an ES program was openly gay, or was suspected of being gay, they were referred to the center in Arizona for treatment. Meehan himself allegedly counseled some ES insiders about their attraction to members of the same sex in what amounted to conversion therapy. (According to Renae Smith, Step Two does not view being gay as being a symptom of addiction and “does not discriminate on the basis of sexual preference for admission to the program.”)

Eventually, Murphy wanted to leave ES, but she had no savings. She made $180 a week for upwards of 110 hours of work. The free room and board intended to justify these low wages were squalid. Initially, Murphy slept in a smoke-stained room in Step One’s basement, until a pipe leaked and caused ceiling damage. After that she slept on someone’s living room couch. Meals rarely rose above dorm fare—ramen, SpaghettiOs. In spare moments, Murphy wondered where all the program’s money went. (According to Renae Smith, as of 2021, a 45-day stay at Step Two in Arizona cost $16,500.)

Purposes were still venues for targeted psychological terror. Contact with people outside ES was tacitly forbidden. Murphy secretly made some friends on Twitter, and on one occasion she drove to a car show to hang out with them. When she returned, she was met with accusations that she’d gotten high. That she must have done drugs. That she was hiding something.

For many staff, a vicious cycle set in: Without money, they were stuck, even if some or every part of them was desperate to leave. “Your life is in their hands,” Murphy said. “Are you going to risk losing your job and having nowhere to go and no savings, or are you just going to be compliant?”

Then Murphy caught a break: The first $1,200 government check sent during the COVID-19 pandemic was her ticket out. She fled the ES world in May 2020.

Since leaving, she has linked up with a community of disaffected former clients and staff. A Facebook group, created in November 2020, now has more than 700 members, who share stories and provide support. Clients from the 1980s and ’90s commiserate with their 2010s counterparts, marveling at how little has changed. Many posts mourn people who overdosed: ES, it seems, keeps genuine addicts off substances only as long as they’re inside the bubble; it doesn’t necessarily give them the tools they need to stay sober when they leave. Numerous clients who were in ES programs over the past decade said they wanted to talk for this story because they couldn’t stand to see any more tragedy. “It’s been too much death, man,” one source said. “I don’t want to see any more dead kids.”

Recently, an offshoot of the main Facebook group began organizing. In Zoom meetings, its members coordinate complaints to state agencies and investigate other modes of redress. One of the group’s most active members is a 21-year-old named William Young, who left Cornerstone, the ES outpost in Denver, in 2018. He’s been working through what his time there did to him ever since. At his darkest point, not long after his departure, he sent a Facebook message to a stranger he thought might be able to help.

“Long shot,” he wrote to Dave Cherry, unsure if he would get a response, “but OntheEmmis?”

“It’s been too much death, man. I don’t want to see any more dead kids.”

After he moved to Colorado, things didn’t turn out as Cherry had hoped. He and Dave Larsen started the Family Recovery Center in Denver, and in 2007 they brought in another former Meehan disciple, a man named Andy Avirett, to help run it. But as it happened, a trio of deeply traumatized former cult members didn’t make great business partners. Larsen and Avirett soon quit and started a second, affiliated program—Family Recovery Center South—about 50 miles away. Not long after, Avirett left that one, too. Still, the men remained friends, and when Larsen decided that he was finally through with the recovery business, he handed off his program to Cherry for a dollar.

Cherry never got the chance to grow the businesses on his own. On New Year’s Eve 2007, his family was gathered at home, cooking pizza rolls and potato skins, when Cherry broke out in a cold sweat. Melissa drove him to the hospital, and an X-ray revealed that his colon had ruptured. He was in septic shock. Cherry was sent to another hospital, where he arrived so severely dehydrated that the doctors struggled to find a vein for an IV. They pumped him with fentanyl through an opening in his thumb and sent him into surgery. Cherry left the ordeal with an ileostomy bag, thankful to be alive.

But the bag became a professional liability. It broke open at a lunch meeting. It ruptured while he delivered a lecture. Cherry spent a lot of time in bed, which caused the arteries in his leg to clog. As he tried to recover, Cherry came across Stonebraker’s book online and read the section about an angry former employee named Chris. Cherry’s response—written in a kind of trance, and posted in installments to—exceeded 40,000 words. He’d wanted to be a writer once upon a time, before Meehan convinced him to drop out of school. The posts formed a memoir of sorts, a feverish account of his experience with ES, interspersed with melancholy epigraphs from Jackson Browne and Gregg Allman. Later, he posted the whole thing to Blogspot, with the title “how i was spiritually raped and left for dead.” Former clients and counselors still circulate the link when trying to explain ES to outsiders.

In 2008, Cherry went to St. Louis for surgery to help clear his veins. The surgeon told him that the procedure would take 90 minutes; it lasted five hours, during which Cherry’s triglyceride spiked, triggering acute pancreatitis. When he emerged from the ICU 15 days later, he moved in with his parents for a month. He missed Melissa and his kids. The loneliness was crushing. When he finally got back to Colorado, the financial crisis was just beginning. The Great Recession proved too much for Cherry’s rehab businesses. He closed the doors for good in 2009.

When Will Young found him nearly a decade later, Cherry was open to talking about his experience with ES, and to learning about Young’s. “I realize that asking you questions about your involvement may trigger feelings of paranoia or apprehension,” Cherry wrote in one message. “That’s pretty common. I’ve been out since 1997, been through cult specific therapy, educated myself on the dynamics of cults and thought reform, and spent a number of years working as an anti-cult advocate and I still feel a touch of apprehension when I get an email or message asking about the cult. All of that even after responding to well over a thousand former members and their families.”

The two men kept up a correspondence and even talked about meeting up—they both lived in Denver, after all. But Cherry proved elusive. Sometimes he dropped out of touch for months at a time, without explanation.

The posts formed a memoir of sorts, a feverish account of Cherry’s experience with ES, interspersed with melancholy epigraphs from Jackson Browne and Gregg Allman. Later, he posted the whole thing to Blogspot, with the title “how i was spiritually raped and left for dead.”

Early one morning in 2018, Dave Larsen received a troubling text: Emergency, he recalled it saying, come get me, I need help. The text was from Cherry. (When asked about it, Cherry said he had no recollection of sending the message.)

It had been a difficult few years. Cherry had reenrolled in college, studying video production. Then, in 2014, Melissa told him she didn’t want to be married to him anymore. Cherry was blindsided. Much of his time and energy was redirected toward navigating his place in his daughters’ lives. They moved back to Phoenix with Melissa; Cherry was granted joint custody, allowing him to have the girls on holidays and over the summer.

Larsen’s first reaction to Cherry’s text was, despite himself, irritation. Their friendship had survived ES and a fraught business partnership, but the divorce put it to the test. Melissa was all Cherry wanted to talk about, and he seemed to call only when he needed a ride or some other favor. The two men had stopped talking for nearly a year. Then Larsen started getting calls from Melissa, asking if he knew Cherry’s whereabouts—other friends hadn’t heard from him and were afraid he’d killed himself. Larsen managed to track Cherry down, but they soon fell out of touch again. A year had passed without the friends seeing each other when Cherry’s urgent text arrived.

Larsen called 911 and requested that someone check on Cherry. The woman told him to hold a moment while she typed in the address. “Oh,” she said. “That’s Dave Cherry. He’s fine. Might just need some support.”

At the time, Cherry was broke. He’d been laid off from his job as a stage manager at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and had recently pawned some of his furniture for $50—he needed the money to buy food. “It was clear to anybody looking in from the outside that I wasn’t going to make it,” Cherry said. His eldest daughter had made him a Tinder profile, and he’d gotten into a relationship with a woman named Teri. They’d broken up after a year or so but remained close. Shortly after Cherry sent the text to Larsen, Teri persuaded him to give up his apartment and stay on her couch until he got his finances straight.

Three years later, Cherry is still there, though he now kicks in $500 a month for rent. When his daughters visit, he sleeps on the floor so they can have the couch, or he rents an Airbnb for short periods. In 2018, he took a job as the manager at a Starbucks kiosk in a local Safeway.

Many of the latest wave of former ES followers eager to expose the program’s abuses are familiar with Cherry and his story. But amid his personal struggles, he’d never heard about them. When I texted him about the organizing on Facebook and elsewhere, Cherry was floored. “This is the first time I’ve ever seen anything of substance on the cult that I wasn’t involved [in],” he replied. “Man, that really lifts a burden for me. I’m here at work and fighting back tears. For years I felt like I was screaming into the wind.” He admired what the new generation was doing. “I know that the cost of being a Meehan victim is incalculable,” he wrote. “I also know the cost of a little bit of activism.”

Even more than 20 years after he left ES, there are moments when the identity Cherry fought so hard to forge for himself slips away and he finds himself ruled by fear. He’ll walk by the Safeway manager’s office, see him talking to the regional Starbucks supervisor, and think they’re plotting against him. Am I about to be railroaded? he’ll find himself wondering. Am I about to end up in another one of those Purposes?

After learning about the online advocacy, Cherry said that he’d be taking the next week off, something he hadn’t done since starting his job. He wanted time to think. He still believed he was capable of more than life had allowed him to achieve. “My plan isn’t to devote that time to a bunch of tasks, or getting back to people, or even spending time with my kids,” he said. “I’m just going to give that week to myself to figure some shit out.”

Joy Meehan passed away in 2020, and Bob Meehan died in June 2021, a month before this story was published. Stonebraker confirmed Meehan’s death in an email, and it was the topic of intense conversation online among former ES participants. As of this writing, an obituary has yet to be published.

When Cherry thinks about Meehan—the man who changed and then ruined his life, whose legacy is one of destruction for so many people—what he feels now is pity. “At the end of the day, he created this group of people who were afraid of him,” Cherry said. “He believed they loved him, and they believed he loved them. But there was nothing there but fear, man. Both ways.”

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