I listened to Paris Hilton’s memoir on Spotify a couple of weeks ago and I’ve not been able to get her out of my mind. It isn’t because anything about her life is relatable to me but instead I think its because so much of what she has experienced resonates with my own deepest fears.
Imagine any one of these things happening to you:
- At fourteen your teacher grooms you, and after your parents catch you in his car (after your first ever kiss) they never ask a single question and instead send you away to live with your Grandmother.
- At fifteen you are drugged and raped by a man you met at the mall, but you never know how to tell anybody about it.
- At sixteen you are woken up in the middle of the night by two large men who pull you by your ankles out of your bed. They drag you handcuffed out the house while your parents stand by and watch. You’re put on a plane and taken to a place where you’re strip searched, and thrown into a cell with no shoes. For the next two years you’re starved, screamed at, beaten, deprived of sleep, watched in the shower, drugged, digitally raped, and locked naked in a solitary cell for days. All communication with your family is carefully controlled, and they won’t believe you anyway. Your parents – who you have always loved and trusted to protect you – are paying for this to happen.
- At nineteen, after surviving all of that, you’re now one of the most famous girls in the world with a pioneering hit TV show. Then your ex-boyfriend, a man in his thirties who manipulated you into a sex tape, releases it to the world (for profit, dedicated – unbelievably – to the victims of the 9/11 terrorist attacks). You take the all the blame and shame, and you become a global punchline.
Then think about the the fact that not one but all of those awful things happened to Paris Hilton. Someone who was born with all the wealth and privilege you could imagine.
I wrote a brief Mini Review of the memoir, which can be found here. In this post I’m going to try to walk you through why it is I can’t stop thinking about Paris Hilton, because I really need to get all this off my mind!
Paris Hilton has been hiding in plain sight
In 2020 Paris Hilton decided to finally drop the “Paris Hilton” character, baby voice and all, and opened up about the abuse she suffered as a teenager in the “troubled teen” industry. If you haven’t you should watch the This Is Paris documentary on her YouTube channel. It’s a softer primer for the memoir, and it will give you a whole different perspective on her, as well as introducing some of the other survivors of Provo Canyon School. Because she kept running away – she is such a warrior, I find her strength incredible – she was actually was sent to three of these facilities, each one worse than the one before: CEDU, Cascade School and Provo Canyon School.
Before the documentary I’d barely thought about Paris Hilton in at least a decade. However I can still – even with my notoriously bad memory – clearly recall watching The Simple Life as a teenager and thinking that those two ridiculous spoiled, ditsy girls can’t possibly be real. This was at the inception of Reality TV before I really understood that “Reality” doesn’t mean real life, and of course they were just playing up characters.
Now I’m absolutely fascinated by her story as someone who has been hiding in plain sight this whole time. When you know about her traumatic teenage years the baby voice and dumb blonde character makes so much sense. It’s not only a brand, it’s a shield. Hearing her drop to her lower pitched natural speaking voice I found quite powerful, and it reminds me of when I first heard Britney Spears speak in her real voice in the leaked court recordings in 2021.
The memoir goes into her experiences in more much detail than the documentary. It was often very difficult to listen to, and I had to take breaks. In many way she has lived through several of my worst nightmares, and I have so much admiration for what an incredibly strong, determined and smart person she is.1
She may have started by accident of birth already past the finish line – white, thin, gorgeous, smart, incredibly wealthy, famous parents – but I think she has to get credit for all she has achieved, and she was an innovator. She knew her own worth. She could have just sat on that pile of gold (plenty of rich kids do!), but she worked and actually made it her own.
Her one “flaw” (in terms of gifts from the Gods) was ADHD, which actually seems to be more of a superpower for those creatively inclined – and clearly Paris is. I thought the way the book was written – and of course read by her – wonderfully captured her voice and her way of thinking, and she jump around what she calls her spiral of thought. Some readers might struggle with the non-linear narrative, but I found it very effective and much more engaging than the average celebrity memoir because of this.2
Her ADHD is the key to unlocking Paris (her irrepressible attraction to club life), and I suspect that finding a understanding doctor at long last has helped her understand herself, and in turn that has given her the confidence to finally unpack her childhood. Of course, growing up in the 90s, ADHD was under diagnosed and misunderstood which meant she was labelled as a “problem” when she couldn’t cope in the uptight private schools her parents wanted her to go to. She was kicked out of every school she attended, and the final straw for her parents, the reason they sent her to CEDU, was that they could not stop her sneaking out the house at night to go clubbing.
Throughout the memoir she does keep a very on brand admirably sunny, positive attitude. It was clearly this unshakable confidence in a brighter future, that she would create her own dream life that saw her through those horrific two years. She is at pains to remove blame from her parents, she wants us to understand that they were suckered by the sales pitches and the brochures, and this was before the internet – it wasn’t easy to research like it is now. They didn’t know, and there was a whole network of measures in place to keep parents (and the world at large) from knowing the truth.
She clearly loves her parents, and they’re working on that relationship. But, as an outsider – a person in 2023 who has never experience anything like any of this – hearing this story it’s hard to understand how they could be so cruel, and having watched the documentary I saw very little warmth from her family.
WTF, Paris Hilton’s Parents?
It breaks my heart that her parents never questioned why she was going to such incredible extreme measures to escape, and to just kept sending her back. Everyone she called and trusted just sent her back. She says she doesn’t hold any resentment over that, that it was a testament to the brainwashing job that these places did on her parents (shielded by their wealth, if they were paying so much it couldn’t be bad right?), but I’d still be fucking angry 20 years later I think.
The cold reaction of her mother in the documentary was hard to watch, and of her sister (who had no idea where she really was for two years. Major golden child vibes from Nikki – “have you ever apologised to Mom and Dad?“). However, that was filmed at the start of her opening up and I understand it does seem like they have come around now as they have been working with her in her activism in recent years, even going to DC to speak to legislators with her.
Kathy Hilton’s Family
Then I recall of the knowledge I have of Kathy Hilton’s own family background, which I learned an unnecessary amount of back when I watched Real Housewives of Beverly Hills a few years ago and wanted to make sense of the behaviours of her half-sisters Kyle and Kim Richards. They had a very intense sister fight in a limo that was a lot more real that a lot of what you see on that show – clearly a lot was not being said, and it was evident from the few seasons that I watched clearly Kim is not at all OK!
Their mother (the glamourous “Gramcracker” that Paris speaks so fondly of in the memoir) aka “Big Kathy”, was allegedly something of a nightmare Stage Mum and gold digger who worked all her kids hard and pushed them to marry wealthy men (which they all did), but especially Kim Richards who has had a lifetime of broken marriages and serious addiction issues, and clearly holds a lot of resentment over her own lost childhood. If you’re so inclined, you can go on quite a rabbit hole on Big Kathy Richards and Kathy Hilton’s upbringing which does not sound very stable!3
The Hilton Dynasty
Then on the other side Paris’ father, Richard, is of course a Hilton. A family family already two generations of very wealthy businessmen, and its hard to imagine that his parents would have been particularly hands on or emotionally available. When your in a family with that much money you usually spend more time with a nanny than your parents. There also have been plenty of scandals and bad behaviour over the years, and even today Paris’s youngest brother Conrad Hilton III continues to get into serious troubles with the law – he honestly sounds like a genuine danger, I would never want to meet him. He makes Paris look like an angel, so clearly their parenting did not improve!4
Sending Paris to “Boarding School”
Perhaps that it how I can begin to understand their motivates for sending Paris away. Kathy, having been a child star with a notoriously pushy mother, didn’t want her teenage daughter (literally) running off to pursue fame and money as a model, and definitely pulling their golden girl Nikki along with her. And none of the Hiltons would want a scandal resulting from Paris’ wild behaviour.
We also must remember that, obviously, on a more primal human level, must have been absolutely terrifying that their sixteen year old was sneaking out at night to run around clubs and raves in New York. But, they were busy doing wealthy people stuff so rather than talking to her about why she felt compelled to do that, finding her a school that she liked, or providing security if they were worried about her safety, they decided – again – to ship her off and also lie to everyone (including her siblings) that she was “at boarding school in London.”
Poor Paris, they didn’t want to deal with her issues so packed her off and made her a shameful secret.
But Paris wasn’t the only one that this happened to, she wasn’t even really an outlier. In the 1990s and up until the nearly 2010s there was a thriving industry catering to this idea of “troubled teens.” Plenty of other kids were sent to places like this, and many of them were from wealthy parents. In fact Paris is not the only celebrity, or child of a celebrity (or child of celebrity named Paris!), that experienced this.5
Only in America? : The “Troubled Teen” Industry
Her story has caught in my mind because it also weaves through a couple of dark areas I’ve had a long fascination with: Fundamentalist Christian Cults and the infinite evils of American Capitalism. Or, if I really boil it down, trying to answer the questions “why is the USA so fucked up?” and – as a British person disturbed by my governments thirst for American imports and cultural osmosis – how can we stop that spreading to the rest of the world? 6
I find it hard to believe that an entire billion dollar industry dedicated to profiting off the abuse of children could exist anywhere other than the United States of America. Of course these places have existed in history elsewhere, the Catholic Church used to run institutes not dissimilar to this in Ireland but those were shut down in the 1990s. Make no mistake that, while they have been closing doors over the last decade (since the Internet made it easier for survivors to share their stories and for parents to research), these places are still perfectly legal!
[Edit: I forgot to include this in my original post] The sheer size of the United States of America I think accounts for why and how so much of the wilder stuff I hear about happens on the scales it seems to, and why to appears their political system has a hard time agreeing on issues that observers in Europe are baffled by (gun control, abortion etc). The USA is fucking massive, and each state is the size of some countries in Europe. People living in the east or west coasts, or in the middle, or in the north versus the south have such different experiences.
The sheer size of the place also means it is seemingly easy to set up your own cult/campus of abuse in the middle of nowhere and to be able to prevent outsiders from seeing what you don’t want them to. These “boarding schools” are in the wilderness, with nobody else around for miles. In the Elan School documentary on YouTube they describe the place having an extremely long drive with staff posted to watch the gate. This was so they could give a warning of visitors and by the time they made it up the drive the worst of things could be hidden. You would be extremely hard pressed to find a piece of land large enough for something like that in the UK!
American Cults: Synanon to Fundamentalist Christians
When Paris first mentioned the “troubled teen” industry in her documentary I was already primed for what was to follow, and the roots in the Synanon cult, because of one of my favourite podcasts – Behind The Bastards – did two episodes on The Elan School: The Worst ‘Troubled Teen’ Facility in 2020,7 and also previous to that two episodes on it’s mother cult Synanon: The Drug Rehab Program That Built Its Own Army (which famously started as rehabilitation for substance abuse and ended up as a violent cult that tried to kill a lawyer with a rattlesnake…) from which it inherited its most fucked up “therapies.”
In the last fourish years I have also discovered the Fundie Snark community on Reddit and YouTube, and the huge rabbit hole that is Fundamentalist Christians. Unfortunately the built of my casual “research” was done in the days before I started to actually keep notes and bookmark sources, so all this is from my information synthesised in my own brain.
[Edit: add for more clarity on where I’m coming from!] Primarily I’ve read and watched what my partner calls an “unhealthy” amount on the Institute of Basic Life Principles (IBLP), Independent Fundamentalist Baptists (IFB), and the Quiverful movement in general and other adjacent American Cults (I’ve dipped a bit into the LDS too). This is a very complicated rabbit hole of doctrine but these groups have a lot in common is behaviour if not their highly specific religious beliefs! As a non-religious person it is the systems of control that I’m interested in, although it is interesting to see what justifications for that they pull out the Bible.
I want to be clear that I am talking about the more extreme end of high control religious groups that can only be described as cults. I have no doubt that there are millions of perfectly lovely religious people in the USA and all over the world, that hold beliefs Christian, or otherwise, without using them to be a dick, as a grift, or exert control over others (or for men to control women). I think there are benefits to religious communities as long as they’re open, inclusive and work to spread kindness.
The schools that Paris attended are run by these kinds of intense, high control religious organisations (Utah has a lot of them run by LDS cult members, but on the Leaving Eden Podcast they have discussed ones run by Independent Baptists).8 This fact made total sense to me. Forcing the “students” into self-policing hierarchies with different coloured shirts, cutting them off from their parents (monitoring and censoring communications), and the exhaustive lists of rules with strict punishments and humiliations for minor actions are classic cult tactics. Then, most obviously, the attack “therapies” that all these places use is literally taken from the Synanon cult’s The Game.
Religion is a great tool for brainwashing the humanity out of people to get them to do horrible things to each other – especially it seems to children – in the name of “good” versus “bad.” All of these religious cults are about controlling women, and every single one of them functions to create a factory of abuse. I think it goes without saying that children were raped in these facilities,9 along with all the psychological torture and physical beatings, because of course they fucking were! See any documentary, I’ll stick some links at the end to ones I’ve watched in recent years on modern mainstream cults.
Parent’s Rights vs Child Welfare
In one of many disturbing facts about the USA it remains true that it is the only member state not to sign the Convention on the Rights of the Child. This means children’s rights and protection differ state to state, and in many states parents can elect to home school their child and no one will ever follow up. While there are many legitimate reasons for home schooling, and many parents do it very successfully, it is also the perfect cover for child abuse. You can do whatever you want to your kid and nobody will ever check.
The HSLDA lobbies hard to prevent any kind of regulations on home schooling being passed. It’s widely believed that the reason for this is extreme religious groups not wanting to give up control of their children. Certainly for the home schooled children in these cults their “education” is threadbare, and it serves to keep them trapped and brainwashed. It also keeps them away from any mandatory reporters who might see red flags for abuse or neglect. The fact that this is allowed with nobody checking on the wellbeing is very dark.
It is this same lack of regulation that means a parent can sign away their child’s rights to these psychotic schools, and legally pay someone to come in the night to kidnap, drug and traumatise them if they want to! And that the facilities like those that Paris went to can claim to be a “school” while not teaching their “graduates” any curriculum. In her book the obviously intelligent and capable Paris (who probably would have done amazingly well an environment that understood her ADHD) is as angry that her education was stolen as she is for all the abuse she suffered.
Good Ol’ American Capitalism
Adding into this mix we have – of course – American Capitalism, which encourages the set up of these supposed therapeutic schools by private companies to operate for profit. They’re there to make money, and as such they don’t care about the reasons for kids to be sent there as long as they get paid. If you’ve heard of the “cash for kids” scandal then fold that into the mess too.10 Once again, I’d learned more detail on this thanks to Behind the Bastards: The Cash for Kids Scandal. If you have not heard of that judges took bribes to send children to for profit detention centres for minor crimes. I think it is safe to assume that there were some kickbacks being taken by judges to send children to these “troubled teen” schools too, along with doctors, psychiatrists, politicians and education professionals. I’m sure many of those people had no idea the truth of these facilities (great lengths were gone to conceal the truth), but also clearly nobody was doing due diligence.
This meant a mix of deeply troubled children with everything from addiction to very serious mental health or developmental issues that needed proper professional support and care; to those with already traumatic history of abuse and rape; to those who were with undiagnosed Autism Spectrum or Attention Deficit Disorders (like Paris); to those who committed any kind of crime from petty theft to rape and murder; kids from religious family’s that did anything outside the cult rules (which could just be listening to secular music!); or even children who exhibited any behaviours their parents didn’t like and they could afford to send them. They might be kids paid for by the state, sent my the courts, or, like Paris, sent by wealthy parents with deep pockets who had seen glossy brochures.
It didn’t matter why they were there because there was never any real intention of treating their issues. There were no trained or licensed professionals there. The idea was to beat, humiliate, abuse and starve out compliance at maximum profit.
Child Abuse Factories
All these factors (and more, such as the lack of any social safety net for families or children, and as I mentioned at the top the vast geography of the USA) combine to create an industry of child abuse factories where both the raw materials and the products are broken children.
While I have been trying to make sense of all this, and while I can’t stop thinking about it, I put together this mind map. Sometimes I just need a mind map to help articulate my thoughts.
Some children would be so broken that staying on to work in these places, or even going off to start one of their own, is their best and only option. And so it spreads like a bacteria multiplying. Many of the children going in come out with PTSD and addiction issues to cope with the trauma, even if they never went in with them, or get hit with delayed issues in later life as memories resurface.
Paris describes her loss of trust in others, and that it was her time being traumatised and locked in solitary that formed her dreams and desire to make so much money that nobody would ever be able to control her again. She’s (famously) had numerous tumultuous and physically abusive relationships, and she has chronic insomnia. To cover it she travelled, partied and worked almost 24/7 for the past 22 years. She even explains that her penchant for sunglasses indoors are not about looking cool, but her way to cope with anxiety. She created an entire alter ego to shield herself.
I keep wondering what would have become of Paris Hilton in another universe where her ADHD was diagnosed, where her parents talked to her about the paedophile teacher, where they sent her to a school that suited her way of learning and she got an academic education. She probably would still have ended up famous (her childhood nickname was “Star”) but you’d hope without the deep trauma and chronic insomnia.
The same is also true for the hundreds of thousands of other kids that go sent to those places, those that didn’t have the unique privileges that she did. At least in this universe Paris is now able to use her voice to help them, and I hope that is finally helping her to get a good nights sleep.
- There is a Change.org petition to shown down Provo Canyon School.
- Breaking Code Silence is a charity working to end the troubled teen industry.
Here are some links if you want to go down a rabbit hole:
- Hillsong: A Megachurch Exposed – I watched this on DisneyPlus recently, it’s also on Discovery+. Hillsong is an Australian Charismatic Christian church that was excellent marketing and very popular with celebrities all over the world, especially in LA and New York.
- Shiny Happy People: Duggar Family Secrets – dives into the IBLP cult and “quiverfull” movement behind the famous 19 Kids and Counting family (link is to Amazon Prime Video).
- Keep Sweet Pray and Obey – Netflix documentary about Warren Jeff’s Fundamentalist LDS cult.
- The Last Stop: Terror At The Elan School – on YouTube, survivors from the Elan School share experiences. This place was on another level to the ones Paris went to!
Here are also a couple of “Fundie” YouTube Channels that I dip in and out of:
- Fundie Fridays – Jen, and now husband James, discusser many different aspects of Christian Fundamentalism including modern day Christian influencer/grifters. Jen also appears in the Shiny Happy People documentary linked above.
- Jordan and McKay – a young ex-mormon couple who discuss more specifically mormon influencers and their experience in and deconstructing from the LDS church.
- “Leaving Eden – IBLP survivor Sadie shares her experiences in and leaving the cult with her co-host Gavri’el. Sadie is very sweet and thoughtful in her discussion. I linked to their “primer” episode. They did an episode on the Agape School which is another “troubled teen” school that Sadie recalls being a threat held over her head in her childhood to keep kids in line (which means avoiding secular music, and not wearing trousers).
- I’ve not listened to this one but it seems Paris as a podcast series with survivors called Trapped in Treatment. The website has a series of survivor stories for Provo Canyon School.
- Rhett and Link from the Good Mythical Morning YouTube/Ear Biscuits Podcast have shared their individual journeys with deconstruction from the Christian Faith, I can’t recall their specific denomination but it was definitely Evangelical with some culty elements. I found it an interesting discussion: Playlist.
- There is the subreddit r/FundieSnarkUncensored which is how I really fell into all this (my pipeline was Trixie Mattel reaction video to Girl Defined > wtf is wrong with these women?! > fundie snark!). The subreddit snarks on the social media content of well known fundie influencers, and survivors from the cult often shares their stories. I don’t really read it very often these days, in fact I haven’t for about 6 months now!
- r/TroubledTeens – survivors and advocates working against the Troubled Teen Industry. You can read hundreds of first hand stories from survivors.
- She is of course a person, and people can be many things at once. I know that she has also done and said some ignorant, offensive and racist things in the past – she is after all a Hilton, and Donald Trump is a family friend (she says she didn’t vote for him, but “even worse” didn’t vote at all). I am not saying she is a saint, but she does have many qualities to be admired, while also acknowledging the bad ones. ↩︎
- I started the Britney Speare’s one but the way its written and read lacks any of Britney’s personality, so I gave up! ↩︎
- Here is a quick summary on Big Kathy! ↩︎
- Here is a quick summary of the whole mess of Hilton family history ↩︎
- The only other ‘celebrity’ that I found speaking about similar experiences is Paris Jackson, Michael Jackson’s daughter who suffers PTSD from her experiences. ↩︎
- Like many (most?!) women I love a good true crime documentary or podcast, I had my serial killer phase and I see this as an extension of that which is actually more scary to me. The content is dark and disturbing but I think it’s important to understand how and why horrible things like this exist. ↩︎
- This may have been how I came to Paris’s documentary, as on the podcast they do briefly mention her activism. I have vivid memories of being in my old kitchen making soup and behind horrified by what I was hearing, and disbelieving that it was ever allowed never mind still legal. ↩︎
- Also see this Rolling Stone article: Inside the Christian Reform School From Hell by Adam Piore, 2023. ↩︎
- Even Paris describes being drugged and taken for thinly pretexted gynaecological exams performed by staff in the middle the night, think what they did to those without famous last names! ↩︎
- Law & Order: SVU even did an episode on this! ↩︎