Letter From West Hollywood
The rise of luxury rehab.
by Amanda Fortini December 1, 2008
Just before dawn one morning in June, Howard Samuels, the executive director of the Wonderland Center—a private alcohol-and-drug rehab facility in West Hollywood, California—was standing in the spacious foyer of his Craftsman-style house, greeting his publicist, Cathy Griffin. They were about to head over to Fox Studios, where Samuels, who frequently turns up on the punditry circuit when an actor overdoses, relapses, or checks herself in, was scheduled to discuss the recent drug bust of Tatum O’Neal and the apparent bisexuality of Lindsay Lohan, on “The Morning Show with Mike and Juliet.” “Do you want any coffee?” Samuels asked Griffin, adding, “I’ve had two cups already.” Samuels is a recovering cocaine and heroin addict who in August, at the age of fifty-six, celebrated twenty-four years of sobriety. Caffeine is the only addictive substance permitted in the Samuels household. (His thirty-eight-year-old wife, Gabrielle, has also conquered several addictions—alcohol, crystal meth, and compulsive eating.) Samuels is a tall, solidly built man with close-set green eyes, a prominent nose, and lips that cover his teeth when he talks, occasionally giving the impression of missing dentures. He was wearing a gray linen Armani jacket with cuffed jeans and Converse Chuck Taylor sneakers.
“Did you see the New York Post?” Griffin asked, wrestling a manila folder from her slouchy pink-leather purse. She began to brief Samuels on the celebrity stumbles that he’d be discussing. The day before, Tatum O’Neal had been caught attempting to buy crack on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. “Originally, Tatum’s story was that she was researching a role,” Griffin explained. “Now she’s saying her dog’s death prompted the drug buy.”
Griffin, who spent thirty years covering celebrities as a journalist for, among other outlets, “Hard Copy” and “A Current Affair,” is also Liz Smith’s “West Coast legwoman”—she provides items about the Hollywood set. When she was hired by Wonderland, the Daily News reported on the possible conflict of interest. Samuels told the paper, “We have a confidential facility. Anybody that leaks anything about anyone is automatically fired.”
“Lindsay has been photographed kissing Samantha Ronson,” Griffin continued, tapping a glossy nail on the kitchen counter. “Now she’s supposedly selling an exclusive story to a magazine for one million dollars.”
“That’s the addiction to fame,” Samuels said, looking pleased to have drawn the connection. “I mean, I have nothing against being with a woman, but it’s the selling of the magazine cover. It’s just another thing to fill the void.”
Lindsay Lohan, who spent a month at Wonderland beginning in January of last year, is perhaps the center’s most well-known patient. (Mike Tyson arrived shortly after Lohan and stayed for close to a year.) Lohan was later dismissive of her time there, saying that the staff had never treated anyone as “hard-core” as she was. Three months after leaving Wonderland, she was arrested for driving under the influence. She then entered Promises, the Malibu-based rehab center. When I asked Griffin whether it was appropriate for Samuels to comment publicly on a former patient, she replied, “He was able to go on TV and not ever cross the line when Lindsay checked into Promises. There was a total media blitz for two weeks, and you don’t get a lot of opportunities like that. He wasn’t her therapist, anyway; he’s the executive director.”
Samuels also maintains a private therapy practice, focussed mainly on issues of addiction, in the guest cottage behind his house. Griffin is a former patient. Samuels counselled her, in person and by phone, through her early days of recidivism. (One of her relapses occurred during a trip to Hawaii: “I said, ‘Howard, I’m drinking a mai tai, what’s the point?’ ”) Her faith in his talents is absolute. “Howard can help addiction to be understood by the public. He can simplify it and destigmatize it. The celebrities have brought it to the forefront—he’s just the right person in the right place at the right time.” Samuels puts it much the same way. “You know, celebrities mirror what is happening in the rest of the country,” he said, referring to the estimated 24.9 million Americans addicted to alcohol or drugs. “It’s so important to get that message out. . . . That’s the struggle, O.K.? Is to try to educate people who think the only reason I’m going to Fox today is Tatum O’Neal!”
At the studio, having received a dusting of powder on his tanned face (“I saw you on VH1, talking about Mötley Crüe,” the makeup artist told him), Samuels sat in a corona of bright stage light. He crossed and uncrossed his legs, waiting for a producer to give him the signal to speak. At one point, Griffin scurried up and snatched the tortoiseshell glasses from the lapel pocket of his jacket. A look of intense concentration came over his face as the first question was put to him through the headphones. “Well, absolutely there’s hope for these two,” he began. “In Hollywood, the greatest curse that someone can have is to be young, beautiful, wealthy, and famous. Because there’s only one place to go, and that’s down.”
Samuels has been treating a substantial segment of drug-addicted Hollywood for fifteen years. I accompanied him to several Alcoholics Anonymous meetings—he has been attending A.A. for eighteen years—and at every one he was greeted by people whom he had treated, or who were hoping to be treated by him. “Half of this town is in meetings,” he told me, “and we’re saving seats for the other half.” One Sunday night, after an A.A. meeting in Beverly Hills that had a particularly flirtatious atmosphere—dating within the program, though frowned upon, is known as “thirteenth-stepping”—Samuels and I were driving down Third Street when he suddenly leaned over me to point out a small red house. “Now, I’ve got to tell you, I did an intervention on a guy here,” Samuels said. He named a film-and-TV actor from the nineteen-seventies. “Remember him? He lived there with his mother. Unfortunately, you can’t use his name.” During another car ride, he drew my attention to the El Royale apartment building on Rossmore, where he had staged an intervention on a more current leading man. “I’ve pretty much worked with everybody in Hollywood,” Samuels said, listing several famous names as he guided his black Audi sedan through a turn. “I could go on forever, you know what I mean?” Above the fireplace in Samuels’s living room hangs a photograph of his beachfront wedding party: Christian Slater, at the back of the crowd, is making a victory sign with his arms in the air.
Samuels was, in a sense, a celebrity addict himself. His father, Howard J. Samuels, was a wealthy businessman who co-founded, along with his brother Richard, the Kordite Corporation, which manufactured Baggies and other plastic products; he also served as Under-Secretary of Commerce in the Johnson Administration. For the younger Samuels, using drugs was a way to rebel: “There was a huge amount of pressure to succeed, and I just said, ‘Fuck you.’ ” In January of 1970, while his father was campaigning for the Democratic nomination for governor of New York, the Times reported that the seventeen-year-old Samuels had been arrested in Greenwich Village two months earlier; he was charged “with possession of a hashish pipe and three amphetamines.” A year later, Samuels was apprehended at Kennedy Airport, for possession of cocaine and heroin. The scandal made the front page of the Daily News.
Samuels spent an unsuccessful year in rehab at a facility called Encounter (now closed), in lower Manhattan. Over the next ten years, his drug abuse intensified. He stole from his mother and his girlfriend, and from wallets left in coatrooms at Park Avenue parties. He overdosed on cocaine. One morning, lacking a syringe, he slit open his shoulder with a razor blade in order to rub cocaine directly into the wound. His family staged a series of interventions, and in 1984 Samuels agreed to enter rehab again, this time at Phoenix House, in Santa Ana, California.
The treatment at Phoenix House is based on what’s known as the “therapeutic community” model—in the eighties, this meant that residents, as members of a community that lived and performed chores together, were expected to challenge, badger, and often verbally or physically humiliate one another. (The approach, sometimes called “attack therapy,” was intended to wear down a patient’s defenses, but has mostly fallen out of favor. Phoenix House now employs a less punitive version of the model.) Samuels says he shared a room with twenty-five other men, who showered en masse. He was hollered at, made to wear dunce signs, and forced to scrub toilet bowls with a toothbrush. During his stay, his father suffered a fatal heart attack, and Samuels, released to attend his funeral, experienced a “psychic shift”: “I realized I did not want to die a drug addict. I did not want to be buried with the epitaph ‘He Had Potential.’ ” Samuels completed the eighteen-month program, and then went back to school, eventually receiving a master’s degree in psychology from Antioch University and a Psy.D. in clinical psychology from Ryokan College, in Los Angeles—an accomplishment he’s particularly proud of, because he suffers from dyslexia.
In 1994, he went to work at Promises, in West Los Angeles, first as a counsellor and later as the program director. In 1997, Samuels was part of a team that helped the founder, Richard Rogg, set up the center’s luxurious Malibu campus. Many of Hollywood’s high-profile patients of the past decade have been treated at Promises Malibu—Ozzy Osbourne, Robert Downey, Jr., Andy Dick, Ben Affleck, Charlie Sheen, Matthew Perry, and Britney Spears among them—and it was there that Samuels began to build the client base for his private practice and to form his own ideas about rehab. “At Promises, you know, we built a beautiful place under the philosophy of ‘Let’s seduce them into treatment; why punish them by having them go to a dump?’ ”
That philosophy represented a departure from traditional methods of rehab, even for celebrities. Twenty-five years ago, when Elizabeth Taylor checked herself into the Betty Ford Center, seeking treatment for an addiction to Percodan and alcohol, she shared an austerely furnished room with a roommate. She took her meals in the cafeteria, waited to use the communal phone, and performed the “therapeutic duties” required of all patients (bed-making, coffee-making, light sweeping). “We really believe that good treatment is the same for everyone,” John Schwarzlose, the C.E.O. and founding director of the Betty Ford Center, said of the program’s egalitarian ethos, which has remained consistent to this day.
The program at the Betty Ford Center has its origins in the Minnesota Model, a therapeutic approach rooted in A.A.’s Twelve Steps and developed in the nineteen-fifties at Willmar State Hospital, a psychiatric institution in Willmar, Minnesota, by a psychologist named Dan Anderson. At the time, alcoholism was still widely considered a failure of will; alcoholics were institutionalized, incarcerated, or left to sink into indigence. Anderson believed that addiction to alcohol (and other drugs) was a “multifaceted illness” (“physical, psychological, social, and spiritual”), and he sought to develop a more humane treatment. His method required a team of professionals—psychologists, psychiatrists, physicians, spiritual counsellors, nutritionists—and a minimum inpatient stay of twenty-two to twenty-eight days. In 1961, Anderson went to work at Hazelden, a rehab clinic in Center City, Minnesota, and, over the next twenty years, his model became standard at treatment centers across the country.
By the nineteen-eighties, insurance companies intent on containing costs began to suggest that the Minnesota Model was excessive. They maintained that there was little evidence that residential treatment was any more effective than a less expensive outpatient version. (Many plans now cover only outpatient treatment, or limit in-patient stays to between three and seven days.) According to the Treatment Research Institute, nearly half of all residential treatment centers in this country have closed since the early eighties. In the late nineties, luxury rehab centers, catering to self-paying patients, began to proliferate. Today, with a twenty-one-mile coastline and a population of roughly thirteen thousand, Malibu alone has twenty-nine licensed rehab establishments. Many are operated out of palatial estates; most are for-profit, do not take insurance, and expect their fee, sometimes as high as sixty-eight thousand dollars a month, to be paid up front. (Hazelden and Betty Ford, both nonprofit clinics, charge twenty-six thousand dollars and twenty-four thousand dollars for twenty-eight and thirty days, respectively, and will accept insurance.)
Samuels and his wife founded the Wonderland Center with Bernadine Fried, the clinical director, and her husband, Alex Shohet, in early 2006. Wonderland charges forty-eight thousand dollars a month for a shared room and fifty-eight thousand dollars for a single room, and does not take insurance. The usual length of treatment is thirty days, although, unlike most rehab clinics, Wonderland will allow shorter stays, sometimes of a week or two. On occasion, the center offers scholarships. I witnessed Samuels arrange for a scholarship for a woman I’ll call Greta, a singer from an early-nineties band, after he heard her speak about her fifteen-year struggle with heroin addiction at an A.A. meeting. (“I’ll do your shit work—I’m just having a hard time and really need some help,” she told him.)
Like many rehab facilities, Wonderland bases its treatment on the principles of Alcoholics Anonymous. But Samuels and Fried assert that their establishment offers a uniquely “individualized” program. Residents are permitted to use cell phones and computers, for example, and many continue to conduct business during their stay. They are taken on shopping trips, and are allowed to bring their dogs. Actors are sometimes released to work on films; musicians can travel for tours.
Many treatment professionals argue that granting this much agency to addicts is no way to treat a condition that Bill Wilson, the co-founder of A.A., described as “self-will run riot.” “Addicts need frustration; they need limits; they need structure. They need to learn how to tolerate those things,” Dr. Drew Pinsky, the service director of the well-regarded rehab program at Las Encinas Hospital, in Pasadena, said. “The more you cater to an addict’s demands, the more you support their disease. Our approach at Las Encinas is ‘Get with the program or get out.’ ” John MacDougall, the director of spiritual guidance at Hazelden, told me, “No one leaves here—except for a funeral, if a close relative dies. We ask you to commit for twenty-eight days. Actually, I can only remember one exception in the fourteen years I’ve been here, and he had to present a treaty at the United Nations.”
The Wonderland Center occupies a seven-million-dollar property on Mulholland Drive, in Laurel Canyon. Behind a massive iron gate, three cream-colored houses with terra-cotta roofs are set back from the road by a long, winding path that staff members navigate with golf carts. The bedrooms are simple, with crisp white duvet covers and wooden armoires. (There are only six single rooms, because clients often have, in the parlance of Wonderland, “a tendency to isolate.”) There are two small kidney-bean-shaped pools, and two sprawling patios. Here, between sessions, clients lounge on wrought-iron furniture and talk and text-message and smoke, flicking their ashes into lidded ashtrays. One has the overwhelming sense of attending a weekend party at a cozy but understated house.
Late in the afternoon on the last Friday in June, Wonderland’s eight in-residence patients—Wonderland has fourteen beds, but the summer months are slow—had completed their “Bridging Mind and Body” group session, in which they had written letters to themselves (“Remind yourself what skills and abilities you have, what you are good at . . .”) and enjoyed a lunch of grilled lobster tails with garlic butter. Every morning, the residents, whom the staff refer to as “clients,” are awakened between seven-thirty and eight. They meditate, eat breakfast, and exercise, either performing yoga poses with an instructor who comes to Wonderland, or working out at Crunch on Sunset Boulevard, under the supervision of a Wonderland employee. During the day, they attend two or three group sessions—“Anger Management,” “Sex and Love Addiction,” “Music Therapy”—and in the evenings they are driven to an off-site A.A. meeting. Samuels declines to push A.A. on resistant patients, though he says that most will relapse “until they finally surrender to the reality of doing it through A.A.”
Around three o’clock, the clients, along with several day patients, began taking seats in the large living room for the last group session of the week, “The Beast,” which is run by Samuels. “The Beast,” Samuels told me later, “is the drug, the alcohol, the unavailable man, the depression. It is that self-destructive energy that destroys us, which we can’t stop.”
Samuels lifted a glass of iced tea—“Cheers, everybody!”—and called the session to order. Dressed in a pink button-down shirt, the cuffs undone and the collar open to reveal a patch of graying chest hair, he began to pace back and forth. “The great news is that it’s Friday, right? So what does that mean? That means that tonight you’re still in rehab. That means there’s no drinking tonight, no crack pipe tonight, no little line of blow, no pills, no weed.”
The clients, looking drained at the end of a long week of self-scrutiny, laughed ruefully. Samuels went on, “But you’re still going to be dealing with the Beast, O.K.? Because the Beast is going to tell you that it’s Friday night, and it’s time to get loaded! I gotta say, normies have that voice, too.” “Normies,” or non-addicts, are frequently invoked by the residents of Wonderland as an impossible ideal; normies are thought not to suffer from pain or depression or obsessions. Samuels is fond of reminding people that he is not a normie—“Howard Samuels: dope fiend, convicted felon,” he routinely announces.
“Who has a Beast?” Samuels asked, scanning the room.
Max, a college professor of finance who was at Wonderland to kick a five-year pill-and-cough-syrup habit, spoke up from the far end of the sofa. (All the clients’ names have been changed to protect their privacy.) “You know, I have a pretty empty kitchen,” he said, “and when parents and friends ask me why I say, ‘Because if I had anything in there that I liked, I’d eat the whole thing.’ I can’t go buy a package of Oreos, because I’ll eat it in one sitting. That’s the Beast, too. I can’t just take one Oreo. I’ll go back and I’ll go back and I’ll go back. It’s not a drug but it’s . . . out of control.”
“Well, you know, Max, you’re obsessive-compulsive, and the obsessive-compulsiveness isn’t just centered around drugs and alcohol,” Samuels said. “Once you get sober, you’re still going to be obsessive-compulsive. But I’d much rather have you deal with not being able to stop eating Oreos than not being able to stop—what’s your drug of choice?”
“Opiates, O.K. Let’s move out the opiates—I’m happy with the Oreos.” But Max did not look happy. He was clearly disturbed by the Oreo obsession. Samuels went on, “Now, once you get to be about two hundred or three hundred pounds, we’ll have to deal with that. We’ll send you to an Oreo twelve-step meeting, all right?” Max mustered a chuckle.
Samuels uses an avuncular, teasing sense of humor to draw people out. Several members of the Los Angeles recovery community told me that they felt he did not maintain sufficient professional boundaries—that it was inappropriate, for instance, for him to frequent the same A.A. meetings that his patients attend. One woman recalled seeing him whiz down the street in her neighborhood: “He’s got a patient in the passenger seat, and is test-driving the patient’s new hundred-thousand-dollar Mercedes.” But I was told by an entertainment executive who is being treated by Samuels for his cocaine habit, “He cuts through the bullshit; he’s not playing footsie.”
Samuels took a gulp of tea and continued pacing. “Who else?” he asked.
Nicole, a young woman with dark, sad eyes and strawberry-blond hair pulled into a loose ponytail, spoke next. “My Beast says that . . . it wouldn’t really be a big deal if I had a drink today,” she said, in a voice so soft the others in the room had to lean forward to hear her.
“Let me ask your Beast some questions,” Samuels said. His tone was gentle, not jesting.
“What was your drug of choice?”
“How often did you drink?”
“What was your drink of choice?”
“How much would you drink during the day?”
“I’d have two bottles.”
“Two bottles of what?”
“Vodka or rum.”
“And how long did you do that for?”
“And how old are you?”
“So when did you start drinking?”
“When I was seventeen.”
“When you were seventeen. And you were able to not go into treatment until you were twenty-one, huh?” He lowered his voice further.
“Wow. Do you think that that’s normal?”
“No, but I think that . . . I think I can control it now. That’s what my Beast says.” As basic as Samuels’s premise is, the metaphor seems to give the patients a way of talking about their addiction.
“And I want to ask your Beast, have you ever been able to control it?”
“Sometimes. . . .”
“Right, but how many times?”
“Not that many.”
“Now, did some horrible things happen to you when you were drinking?”
“Yeah. . . .”
“So why would you want to drink? I mean, think about it, if horrible things happened to you because of alcohol . . . and you got locked up in treatment, ruined relationships, ruined years of your life, then why would you want to risk all of that for a liquid?”
“I just miss it.” Nicole looked down at her lap. Three of the women in the room began to weep softly. The only other noise came from the adjacent kitchen, where the chef, Chris Wilson (“Tom Hanks’s brother-in-law,” Cathy Griffin informed me), was shredding carrots for the evening’s salad.
Later that afternoon, Marvin, an eighty-year-old cocaine addict who had been at Wonderland for three weeks, agreed to show me his room. A white cardboard bakery box containing a dozen cupcakes with pale frosting sat on his desk (“so I can give them only to who I want to have them”). After his wife died, several years ago, Marvin took up with a much younger woman who turned him on to cocaine. The Wonderland staff had set him up with a team of doctors at Cedars-Sinai, who examined his heart, which can be strained by cocaine use. (I later observed one of the Wonderland staff members helping Marvin navigate Matchmaker.com, in the hope of finding him a non-enabling girlfriend online.) I asked Marvin whether he felt he had recovered. “I’m already a recovering optimist,” he joked, deflecting the question. “My problem was depression—the drug was incidental. I don’t do the twelve-step program. I don’t go to the A.A. meetings. I don’t need it. Yeah, and I needed a vacation anyway.”
At dusk, as dinner wound down (Chilean sea bass with plum syrup, mini lamb-meat loaves with mint), a few of the clients lingered on the patio. A ghost of a girl, with troughs the color of bruises beneath her eyes and track marks up and down her arms, could be heard on her cell phone, crying. Earlier that afternoon, she had staggered over to me, a long silk scarf tied around her neck, and said that she was horribly “dope sick” and had spent the previous night at the hospital. This was her second visit to Wonderland. Nearby, a lanky young woman with dyed-blond hair was talking to a guitarist from an eighties pop band. “I’m on Suboxone now,” she told him. (Suboxone is commonly used instead of methadone during heroin withdrawal.) “I’m coming off it. I’ve been through it before, but I’m scared.”
Wonderland’s co-founder Bernadine Fried met Samuels while lecturing on addiction at Antioch. Both worked for a time at Promises before leaving to start their own practices. “We developed these private practices and were really, you know, wildly successful. But we both missed working in a treatment environment,” Fried said. Fried is forty-six, and has been sober for twenty years. Like Samuels, she is a former heroin addict; her husband, Alex Shohet, was once her dealer. Shohet suffered a relapse in 2000, but has now been sober for four years.
There has been tension among Wonderland’s founders from the time the center first opened its doors. Samuels and Shohet clashed over the question of who should act as C.E.O., as well as over a “sober living” facility that Samuels was running out of one of his four homes. Shohet and Fried felt it was a violation of their non-compete agreement. (Samuels’s neighbors were also upset. “He never brought it to the attention of anyone,” one of them told me. “There were all these people going in and out of the house, and up all night, and this is a very residential neighborhood.”) By December of last year, Samuels, Shohet, and Fried had begun attending “business therapy” together once a week. When that didn’t help, they hired Andrew Spanswick, a social worker with a background in hospital management, to act as C.E.O. He was unable to resolve the dispute, and the partners agreed that each side—Shohet and Fried on one; Samuels and Spanswick on the other—would begin raising money to buy the other out.
On a Thursday morning in late June, I met Bernadine Fried, who has dark wavy hair and a gentle manner, at a ranch in Malibu, where she led a weekly session for Wonderland patients known as “equine-assisted psychotherapy” (an offering at many high-end treatment centers). During one of her sessions, clients would spend time with the ranch’s five horses—grooming or feeding them, sometimes even painting on the horses’ sides with watercolors. “I’ll say, ‘Paint something from your past, present, or future. Do half the horse from your past, half the horse from your future,’ ” Fried explained. (For the more apprehensive patients, there was a miniature donkey named Waffles.) The therapy is said to have originated in a treatment developed in Denmark in the nineteen-fifties; horseback riding, or hippotherapy, was believed to alleviate the physical effects of diseases like cerebral palsy and polio. Today, the idea seems to be that simply being around a horse can confer psychological benefits, and that horses can reveal a patient’s unexpressed emotional states—reacting to feelings of fear or anxiety or aggression by whinnying, say, or by stamping their hooves. “Horses are able to read energy,” Fried told me, as we brushed a palomino gelding named Chex. “They are incredible therapists. I let them show me what’s going on with a person.”
Fried claimed that the method was especially useful with clients who were hardest to reach by traditional means: those with a history of trauma, or who had repeatedly failed at recovery. These patients are the reason that she founded Wonderland. “I would have, like, the relapsing heroin addict that’s been in rehab twelve times, and I’d think, What am I going to do with you? I have nowhere to send you,” she said. Wonderland’s patients also tend to be wealthy, and therefore to have considerable resources for masking their addictions. “Most people are like, ‘I totalled my car, I better go into rehab,’ ” Fried said. “These people are like, ‘I totalled it, I’ll get a new one, or I’ll drive the Porsche today.’ ”
Several of the patients I spoke with complained that Wonderland affords unfair privileges to its wealthiest or most famous residents. Mike, a commercial real-estate broker and recovering cocaine addict who was an outpatient at Wonderland in January, 2007, described the hoopla surrounding a celebrity client—paparazzi circling the property, spectators at Wonderland’s regular Thursday-night A.A. meeting. “To have a little entourage with you in rehab is . . . it was crazy,” he said. “The driver sat outside. The publicist hung out with the driver or the personal assistant. People were in and out and coming and going. It was chaos.”
During Lindsay Lohan’s thirty-day sojourn at Wonderland, her many comings and goings perplexed the tabloid media. There she was in the lobby of her apartment building, on the set of her film “I Know Who Killed Me,” taking her SL500 to Beverly Hills Mercedes to be serviced. “Does the treatment involve the attending of Mad Tea Parties and the chasing of white rabbits? Maybe for Lindsay, but not for anyone else in residence,” one blogger wrote. “I even had that conversation with Howard,” Mike told me. “I said, ‘Well, I think some people are a little bothered that their program and their stay at Wonderland is being negatively impacted by this craziness and why rules don’t apply to her that apply to us. I mean, there is some resentment building up.’ And he said, ‘You know what, Mike, I hear you, but we have to cater our program and our treatment center to each individual to make it work for them. Because if we didn’t do that for this individual, she would have been gone on Day One.’ ”
The following Monday, after an art-therapy class in which clients painted raw wooden birdhouses and trimmed them with pompoms and pipe cleaners, the objective being to “create a home” for themselves (Max: “What’s the sobriety angle on this?”), the group gathered to celebrate the third “sober birthday” of Susan, the E.M.T.-certified health-services coördinator responsible for distributing client “meds,” with a round of singing and a Key-lime pie decorated with candles.
The previous day, Greta, the nineties-era singer, had been allowed to leave the center to perform the national anthem at a sporting event. (For any off-site business, Wonderland supplies residents with “sober companions”—Wonderland employees who are usually introduced as a friend or a cousin from out of town.) It had been a month since the A.A. meeting at which Samuels first met Greta. Her hair, formerly unkempt and mousy, was now layered into a modern mullet and dyed a variegated blond and brown. Her nails were painted in a punk-rock French manicure: blue with black tips. (The staff at Wonderland had arranged for her to have her hair colored, and had also driven her to get her guitars out of the pawnshop.)
“How was it yesterday, singing sober?” someone from across the table asked.
“Ah, dude, it was really amazing,” Greta said. “It was the first time ever. Once, I had ninety days and I booked at the Knitting Factory on a Wednesday, which is, like, when no one is there, and I showed up and there was, like, thirty people there to see me. I was like, ‘Who are all these fucking people?’ . . . I thought, Oh. My. God. So I went and did a shot of vodka.” The discussion came to a halt when Susan materialized at Greta’s side.
“You need to come take your meds,” she told Greta. Though its residential-rehab license stipulates that Wonderland’s staff cannot administer medication, they watch to make sure the patient swallows it. Nearly all of the Wonderland clients are on some type of medication, whether for detoxification (such as Suboxone, for opiate withdrawal) or to treat an underlying psychiatric disorder (Zoloft for depression, Klonopin for anxiety).
“I can’t take them without having something to eat,” Greta replied.
“You didn’t come at breakfast.”
“I know, but I was in the shower, and then I was late for Group.”
“You were late yesterday. After you finish eating, I need you to come take them.” Susan was calm but firm.
“This attitude isn’t making me want to do it,” Greta said.
“But it’s also, like, the ninth time, since you got here, that I’ve had to remind you. . . .”
“O.K., but the attitude is not helping me.”
“Well, it’s getting a little bit old. I’ll do the best I can to help you, but it’s getting to the point where it’s your place to remember.” Susan walked away, the keys to the medication storage room jingling from her belt.
“You all right?” a lunch companion asked Greta.
“It’s all right. She’s right,” Greta conceded. “It’s just the attitude; it’s always like that.”
In August, Wonderland celebrated its second anniversary. The center has treated approximately two hundred and forty clients and employs an “alumni coördinator” who keeps up with them: sending cards for sober birthdays, tracking changes in address. He does not, however, track Wonderland’s success rate. This may be because residential treatment programs have abysmally low rates of success—from about ten per cent to about thirty per cent, depending on where you get your statistics. Or it may be because Wonderland is still so new that any statistics would be meaningless. Dr. Steven Jacobs, an internist and addiction specialist who has served as a medical consultant to Wonderland, told me, “Twenty-five years ago, when I first started, the notion was that if you stayed abstinent for two years, you would have a ninety per cent chance of staying clean and sober. Now the disease is thought to be more pernicious. It isn’t until a person has had about five years that we think it’s really likely he’ll have a lifetime success of staying sober, from a scientific point of view.”
Even established clinics don’t offer much in the way of useful statistics. “Do we know what our relapse rate is? No,” Betty Ford’s John Schwarzlose said. “We know that our physicians and dentists do well, at about an eighty per cent success rate”—these doctors, who are monitored for five years after completing treatment, must pass random urinalysis tests or lose their license, so the incentive to stay sober is high—“but to give you a percentage would just be pulling it out of the air.” Hazelden, which claims a success rate of between fifty-three and fifty-six per cent, tracks the abstinence of its patients for only one year.
On the Saturday morning after the Fourth of July, I met Samuels in the small guesthouse where he sees his private clients. His gray hair had recently been cropped close, and he was doing the “Master Cleanse,” which meant he had consumed nothing but lemon juice, cayenne pepper, maple syrup, and water for five days. “I like doing it, because I’m sort of an extremist, you know? I think it builds your sense that you can do anything you set your mind to,” he said. Samuels’s wife, Gabrielle, could be glimpsed through the window in a maroon bikini with blue trim, sunning herself alongside the extra-wide lap pool in the back yard. “Success rates are bullshit,” Samuels told me. “The first time somebody goes to treatment, yes, the success rate is low . . . but I failed after my first treatment, O.K.? So does that mean I’m a failure?” The ringing of his office phone interrupted him. It was one of Samuels’s regular clients, an actor and former cocaine addict in his late thirties who, while on location, had cheated on his wife with his twenty-three-year-old co-star. Samuels counselled him for several minutes; I petted Hank and June, the collie-Lab-German-shepherd mixes who had left their olfactory imprint on the office. “I think without question you’re a good person,” Samuels was saying, stressing his syllables with care, “but you have character defects, and you have self-destructive aspects, that, you know, you’re not in control of yet. . . .”
When he hung up, I returned to the question of recovery. “It really is about the willingness of the client,” he said. “That’s going to be the key to long-term success. I’m not a believer that treatment centers save people’s lives. I think if you’ve got a really good treatment center you can go a long way toward helping a person, but at the end of the day it’s not about the treatment center. It’s about the individual, and about whether or not they’re at that place to change.”
The Wonderland Center recently underwent an organizational overhaul—several employees were fired, including Bernadine Fried. Samuels and Spanswick were able to terminate her because together they formed two-thirds of the board. (Alex Shohet was let go last April; Shohet and Fried, who still own a 49.5 per cent share of the company, are planning to seek an injunction to reverse the takeover of Wonderland by Samuels and Spanswick.) “I wanted a new start,” Samuels said simply, referring to the changes. Samuels and Spanswick now have ambitious plans for Wonderland’s expansion, the first step of which is to open an outpost in New York City. They imagine that New York clients will appreciate a program that allows them to receive treatment while continuing to work. From there, the partners plan to move on to additional cities, by acquiring existing treatment centers and remaking them according to the Wonderland model. Samuels considers rehab a recession-proof business. “We’re looking to expand the sober community,” Samuels said. “To get the message out that it’s cool to be sober, that your life isn’t going to be a drag, that you can kick ass and have an amazing life—you can take over the world.”